Sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany
The biblical book of Jonah really is a funny story. Quite literally, I read it is a comedic text, marked by humour and broad irony, designed to get us shaking our heads at the thick-headedness (and hard-heartedness…) of its title character, and then leave us with the task of answering its core question. But it is also a funny story in another sense. For such a brief book—all of four chapters, and less than 1300 words in its English translation—it can serve as something of a flashpoint for those who want to argue about the credibility of biblical narratives.
The issue, of course, is the question of the whale or “big fish” that swallows the prophet Jonah whole, and then three days later spits him up on the beach, very much alive. That anyone would take such a story as a matter of fact is a great source of glee for the comedian Bill Maher, who in his film Religulous calls it one of his “favorite nonsense stories.” And on the website of Richard Dawkins, there is a string of similarly scornful comments about those who might want to take the story seriously.
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On the other side of the same coin, if you surf around the Internet looking at posts on the story of Jonah, you’ll easily find a fair number of sites promoting purportedly scientific proofs for the story’s historicity. This is the other side of the same coin, in that these arguments are all according to the terms set by Dawkins and the current crop of so-called new atheists. Well, that kind of argumentation can go back and forth forever, getting absolutely nowhere. Like some endless game of tennis in which the ball never actually lands out of the court, it gets very boring very quickly.
There are, of course, other voices that simply accept that God is God, and if God wanted to store Jonah in a whale’s belly for three days, then let God do that. At least those voices have a fighting chance of keeping the story itself in view. The same can be said for those who hear the story as something of an extended parable. For the truly wondrous thing in this prophet’s tale is not the big fish, but rather the magnificent grandeur of God’s grace and mercy. And the other side of that coin is the smallness of Jonah’s own vision, as again and again he decides what God should or shouldn’t do.
In his essay on Jonah, the great Jewish writer and novelist Elie Wiesel insists that a major theme of the book is repentance; the possibility of true change and renewal.
[T]he emphasis is on repentance, which has dominated Jewish thought from its origins, since Adam and Cain. Unlike Greek mythology, Judaism rejects the concept of fatalism. Fate is not inexorable, decisions are never irrevocable. Man is not a toy whose functioning is prearranged; his link to infinity assures him access to endless possibilities. Destiny’s march can be stopped; its triumph is not predetermined… Evil can be aborted, diverted, vanquished. Better yet, it can be transformed; it can undergo endless mutations—by choosing repentance. (Wiesel, Five Biblical Portraits)
“Just as God has the power to begin,” writes Weisel, “man has the power to continue by beginning again—and again.”
You know the broad outlines of the story. The voice of God comes to Jonah, telling him to “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria; a sworn enemy of Israel. “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord,” evidently deciding for his own reasons that he’d rather not go to prophesy to the enemy.
Well, it turns out that boarding a ship is perhaps not the best way to try to escape God, as a great storm is whipped up, which even seasoned sailors can’t fight. They decide to throw lots to see who might be responsible for this clearly unnatural tempest, and the lot falls on Jonah. Yet even after he tells them that he is a Hebrew who worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” and that he is in full flight from that God, the sailors continue to fight the storm. Even after Jonah tells these Gentile sailors to toss him overboard, they keep trying to beat that storm. Exhausted and overwhelmed, they finally agree to put him overboard, and instantly the sea is calmed.
Notice this. It is the non-Jewish sailors who do all they can to save Jonah. Give one solid point to the Gentiles. And then when the seas are calmed, “they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” Make that two points for the outsiders.
Enter the big fish that so Bill Maher. Jonah is swallowed whole, and spends three days in its belly, as good as dead. The second chapter of the book is given over to Jonah’s prayer of repentance, which is a remarkably powerful lament in the tradition of the book of psalms. And we see repentance apparently bearing fruit, for “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”
And so, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” Here’s your new life, Jonah; your second chance. This time, the prophet wisely heads into the heart of Nineveh and proclaims his message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. One sentence. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” The king himself hears the word, and orders a city wide fast, extending even to the animals. And here is one of the most comic images in the whole biblical tradition: “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.” The animals too? Yes, for as the king says, “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” That’s another point for the non-Jewish outsiders. They hear the prophetic word, and they mobilize. And “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Three cheers for the Gentiles who heard and responded, and three cheers for God in his mercy. Not so much for Jonah, though. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
Jonah is angry because he claims that he knew that God would be merciful; so why had he bothered uttering the prophetic word? And perhaps Jonah is angry because he resents God extending mercy to the enemy. Yet he is strangely optimistic; hopeful that maybe God will yet rain justice down on Nineveh, so he parks himself on a hill overlooking the city, hoping to see the fireworks of its destruction. The sun is hot, and God causes a bush to grow up to give Jonah shade, but no sooner has that bush grown up than God sends a worm to destroy it. Assuming this is not a Jewish worm, we have yet another Gentile hero in the story…
And now Jonah is really angry. As Wiesel observes, “The book ends with God’s word, which is only natural: God makes sure He has the last word, always.” And in this case, God’s word is a question.
Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
The book just hangs there; for Jonah, for that original audience, and for us, who have inherited this story from our Jewish forebears. How can we possibly resent the possibility of a gracious turn-about? How can we possibly begrudge others a transformation, a “beginning again—and again”? When we hear week after week after week that God is prepared to reconcile us and draw us home again and again and again, why would we not want that to be extended to others? Even to the enemy other?
It is a funny story, this tale of Jonah, because when heard rightly it has a funny way of pushing our assumptions and pressing us to be merciful in the same way that God is merciful. The question it ultimately raises is not whether a man could live in the belly of a big fish for three days and three nights. The question it ultimately asks— presses upon us—is can we rise to the story’s deep challenge of deep and abiding mercy and grace.
Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/4364838672/