1 Corinthians 7.29-31
Sunday 21 January 2024
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” Jonah rages, explaining why he ran away from God’s mission in the first place.
This is the Jonah we know, of course- the one with the big fish.
“Go and cry out against the great wickedness of the Ninevites” said God to Jonah and Jonah tries to run away over the seas, later complaining that he knew all along that God would not act outside God’s own merciful nature.
What is an ancient hymn of praise, that God is full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love becomes in Jonah’s mouth a complaint.
“I knew you would be like that!” he whines when divine wrath does not descend from on high on the repentant people of Nineveh.
Our text today begins with the second time God issues a call to Jonah to go and proclaim to the people of Nineveh that in forty days, their city would be overthrown in an act of God’s judgement on their wickedness. God perceives (correctly!) that Jonah will have a different response to this second summons, given that Jonah’s earlier attempt to escape God led to him being swallowed by a great fish and vomited up three days later on a beach.
The end of today’s reading only goes as far as the change in divine direction. Despite the faithful Hebrew man, Jonah’s predictions uttered in good faith, Nineveh, (this city of Gentile bad behaviour) is spared the coming judgement. One of the big themes of this fascinating and, I believe comical, story is that God is a universal God. It reveals God’s love for the world includes not only the chosen people of Israel, but these Gentile Ninevites. Earlier in the story, the sailors on board the ship who threw Jonah overboard at his request are caught up in relationship with Israel’s God. The tradition of Yahweh’s revealed prophetic word is being recast in a wonderfully universalising way with even the animals of Nineveh called upon to fast and put on the sackcloth of repentance.
We might recognise some of these character roles of “faithful outsiders” (played by the repentant Ninevites ) and “unfaithful insiders” (epitomised by Jonah) that crop up in scripture and sometimes in our own unconscious. Sometimes we might flip between thinking we are on the margins or outside of church but feeling closer to God and the life we want to live… and then the next moment recognise ourselves as a complete insider in the family of God, but one who has not allowed our insider status to faithfully flow into our outward life. We may play all of these roles at different times and this knowledge alone may help us avoid attaching to identities we self-create and seek to live instead with greater humility.
We also may recognise the feelings of resentment that Jonah later expresses. Indeed, even if we read to the end of this short book of Jonah, (and I recommend that you do!), we do not have Jonah’s situation resolved. His last words recorded tell of his sense of ill-usage and anger that God did not enact the predicted destruction on the Ninevites. It is easy to condemn Jonah for his ungraciousness – why could he, too, not celebrate the changed hearts and lives of the Ninevites?
But perhaps the point is not Jonah, but us, the reader, the hearer. Perhaps as we observe Jonah’s indignation, judging him for not changing to allow some joy for the repentant Ninevites and some relinquishing of his own need to be right…we might just suddenly catch a glimpse of ourselves, as in a mirror.
Are we secretly willing someone’s downfall? It is normal and right to desire to see evil or selfish behaviour come to an end, but would we be able to wish others well if they changed? Are we open to seeing them not as a sum of their past wrongs, but as people needing grace but also possessing enormous possibility, as we do? Could it be that Jonah’s challenge is really our own? Whenever we are looking at another with judgement and thinking “if only they could be more like this…” or “if they would only show that they are sorry” or “if only they would change…then I could forgive” we are functioning from a position of self-righteousness.
I wonder, too, what this story can say to us as Australians as we approach our national holiday. In this culture of judgemental voices and trial by media, do we carry in our minds a “people of Ninevah” whom we are convinced are beyond redemption? In what ways are we convinced of our own righteousness? Where have we failed to recognise the universality of God as God over all people and all creation, loving and invested in the flourishing of all? Where have we not listened to the voice of the other – the voice of First
Nations people, of refugees, of the homeless or the poor, the voice of country itself- as a prophetic revelation among us? Where do we, not only as individuals, but as a nation, need to repent?
The book of Jonah is a fascinating and much interpreted short narrative within our collection of different Hebrew books we call the Old
Testament of our Bible. Its dramatic and comic value ensures it continues to be read, but its power lies in its capacity to read us. There are truths being revealed that were apparently so important that three times in the Gospels, Jesus references the text saying to those demanding a miracle, that no sign would be given but the sign of Jonah. Jesus himself apparently identifies with this impossibly foolish and comic figure of Jonah. As we draw on these Biblical narratives for wisdom, we are not meant to self-righteously look down upon the foolish, the sinful, the ignorant characters of scripture, but instead see ourselves in their skin or through their eyes.
Jonah does nearly everything wrong and yet remains God’s beloved. He represents Israel, becoming a blessing to the Gentiles of Ninevah almost in spite of himself, allowing God’s salvation to be enacted through him. This is the story of God’s persistent, covenanting love that rebuilds the world through mercy and forgiveness, over and over again. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is willing to be that fool who would align himself, even unto death, with God’s everlasting covenant of grace.
Christ is therefore eternally the icon of the divine turning away from vengeance, so that God’s grace and persistent universal love may be forever restoring relationship. This same divine pity for the Gentile Ninevites is what brings the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, to be willing to die that all creation might be raised in him. The universal Christ is the revelation that breaks down all separation between people and God, between nations and peoples and between humanity and creation.
Jesus is the sign to end all other signs- he gives himself. When Jesus warns us to not go seeking miracles and wonders he is revealing that it is our grasping and glory-seeking that makes us want something better. Do we want the grace of God revealed, or do we really want power for ourselves, and judgement on those whom we have judged? Jonah had been three days in the belly of the fish when he came to that ‘evil generation’ of Ninevah. We receive the Christ who comes to us, three days entombed but here amongst us, at the heart of all things and in our own hearts, and yet so difficult for us and this generation to comprehend. Our task, perhaps, is not so much to comprehend, but to invite the presence of the one whose grace unravels our pride and calls us to let go of our own self-righteousness. Like Jonah, we may be made fools in the cause of love, but mercy has the power to set us free from the judgemental burden of our own resentment.
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
May we rejoice in God’s stubborn love, remembering the sign of Jonah whose prophetic words were unravelled by grace. May we have the courage to follow the way of Jesus, the holy fool.