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Archive for January, 2018

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which, there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals?” God says to Jonah in one of best last lines of any book in the Bible.

Now, the question sounds like Cain’s question to God, “Well am I my brother’s keeper? Am I really supposed to be my brother’s powerful ally in living this life?” Which if one is faithful to God’s agenda can only be answered, “Of course.”

But, Jonah really wants to say, “No you’re not supposed to be concerned about them. They are the enemy! Not only do they not know their right hand from their left, but they don’t know right from wrong and they destroyed your own people in the Northern Kingdom Israel. So, you should just destroy them like you said you were going to do when you told me to go and tell them “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

However, if Jonah did get to say that, we’d miss the most humorous book in the entire Bible. Jonah is, I think, an ancient near east satire where the hero says all the right things, but his actions contradict his words.

Remember, God calls Jonah to be a prophet and tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. So what does Jonah do ? He runs away in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish. Then, he tries to hide from the creator of the universe down in the bottom of the boat, reminding me of people who deny something they’ve said even when it’s been recorded and played back for them. Pretty foolish, right? Then, a great catastrophic storm hits the ship and Jonah begs the crew to throw him overboard into the sea, so crew can save themselves, which they do. Of course, God sends a taxi to pick him up in the form of a great fish, who swallows Jonah. While in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, Jonah prays thanksgiving for God hearing his cry of distress and bringing him safely out of the pit of Sheol and saving his life, of course he never did cry out for help from God, nor was his life ebbing away to death. This prayer uses all the right words, but lacks the conviction of faith. Eventually the great fish vomits Jonah onto the sandy shore just outside of Nineveh.

Now, Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrians, who don’t believe in God and who were enemies of Israel because they were responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They enslaved and scattered the people of the northern kingdom of Israel into the world where they were lost for centuries. Yet, despite Jonah’s unwillingness and disobedience, God still wants Jonah to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh that sounds like the certainty of judgment without the possibility of mercy.

So, Jonah proclaims, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and he expects God will destroy Nineveh because Jonah can’t imagine the Ninevites repenting of their ways. Also, he doesn’t think the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of Nineveh and doesn’t think God’s blessing of love, compassion and mercy extends to outsiders, particularly not historic enemies.

Except, the hard truth for God’s co-workers is as my granddaughter Aubrey asserts when she is asked why she has done something, “I do what I do.” Well, God does what God does and we have absolutely no control over what God will do. This is as hard a lesson to learn as that referees and umpires aren’t going to change their calls no matter how much dirt we kick on their shoes, yell in their faces, yell from the sidelines, or scream at the television set. God does what God will do and doesn’t really care if we like it or not.

Jonah learns this the hard way when he proclaims his eight-word sermon and becomes the most successful prophet in the history of Israel when the Ninevites from King to peasant, including animals, go full on medieval repentance wearing sack cloth and ashes without any guarantee it will change anything, but just on the off chance that “God may relent and change his mind, so that we do not perish.” They rest their hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness.  What else could God do, except forgive them.

Jonah goes ballistic preferring death to watching this spectacle of grace. After all, no prophet speaking to the people Israel has ever had this much success calling the people of Israel to repent and turn back to God and God’s ways. Usually, they get stuff thrown at them or the king puts them down a well to drown  or they just ignored by the people. Israel never, ever repents this fully and immediately. It takes war and exile to get Israel to return to God. Jonah has never seen this spectacle of grace in Israel, so is angry at how responsive the people of Ninevah are to his eight-word sermon.

Naturally, God does play with Jonah a bit when he goes ballistic, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, when God creates a castor oil bush to grow up over Jonah’s head and provide shade for him as he sits hunkered down in his sulking pettiness, Naturally, Jonah likes the shade bush very much as much as he hated what happened in Nineveh, but it is short lived. God creates a worm to attack the bush and Jonah again threatens to die, as if this will ruin God’s day.”

And, because this a teachable moment, God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” This, of course, a trick question because if Jonah says no, it isn’t right, then he has no right to be angry about the mercy God shows the Ninevites. If he says yes, it is right for him to be angry, then God gets to compare what happened to the bush to what happens to a whole city full of people and maybe Jonah might get a glimmer of his petty self-righteous bookkeeping.

True to form Jonah does answer, “Yes, I get to be angry about the bush!” You see, Jonah like all of us bookkeepers loves the blessings of grace we receive, even if they come to us from way out of far-left field, like a package delivered to the wrong address. We love grace and forgiveness, we just don’t want those other people whom we know do not deserve grace and forgiveness to be blessed at all. We want to tally up the goodness points according to our calculations of who should get grace and who shouldn’t because. we want to be the distributors of grace according to our standards. But God’s grace doesn’t work that way. We don’t get to decide who gets grace and who doesn’t. It is all up to God. Period!

When God calls us to be co-workers of grace, calling people to change the direction of their lives, we are speaking God’s words, not ours. We are witnessing to God’s intentions that God loves all people and desires all people everywhere to have a life filled to the brim and overflowing with abundant peace. Not our petty bookkeeping way.

And, according to Mark, when Jesus says, “the time it is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news” he is saying God loves everyone and wants everyone to have an abundant life of peace and well being. It is also what Jesus will teach Simon, Andrew, James and John and all the other disciples to proclaim and teach, not just the first twelve, but all of us who claim to be followers of Christ.

Who knows maybe if we proclaim that good news, then teach why it is such good news, maybe we’ll be the most successful prophets and apostles of our day. Then, we too can join the party in Ninevah, whooping it up with all the other folks who don’t know their right hands from their left, but whose hope is in God’s mercy and love.

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