About Ten Years Ago..., Proper 20 (A) - 2005

September 18, 2005

About ten years ago, in The Good Book: Reading The Bible With Mind And Heart, Peter Gomes wrote that what makes the Bible so compelling is the company of characters who, like ourselves, are so often both confused and confusing and yet play their part in the drama of human relationship to God. The stories of such characters, he added, are not true because they are “in the Bible;” rather, the stories are in the Bible because they are true to the experience of men and women with this God.

Perhaps there is no other character in Hebrew Scripture about whom this is so accurate as Jonah. It says a lot about our ancient ancestors that they included the Book of Jonah in the canonical collection of the 12 Minor Prophets. From beginning to end, this very short story is a very funny piece of satire on the classical prophetic writings—a point that is lost on people who take things too literally, and themselves too seriously. Jonah can be read as a literary figure of the anti-prophet: instead of hearing, proclaiming, and doing the Word of the Lord, Jonah invariably does the exact opposite. Called to go east and prophesy repentance to the heathen Assyrian city of Nineveh, Jonah promptly goes west and gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, a destination better known to us as the Spanish Costa del Sol. When a violent Mediterranean storm comes up, the heathen sailors on board have infinitely more respect for the God of Israel than Jonah himself does. The episode with the whale is very well known in Sunday school, although, as Clarence Darrow famously noted in the Scopes trial, the Hebrew simply says a “very big fish.” These verses clearly satirize the really dangerous and hostile situations in which prophets such as Jeremiah did, in fact, find themselves. When, with great reluctance, Jonah finally goes to Nineveh to prophesy repentance, the king and all the inhabitants do something almost never heard of in the writings of an Amos or a Jeremiah: they actually believe the Word of the Lord and proceed to fast and pray in sackcloth and ashes.

And then God saw how Nineveh turned away from its evil ways, and had compassion upon all who lived there. We cannot help but think that any ordinary prophet would be praising the Lord with all his might, but not Jonah. “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (4:1) To paraphrase his words a bit: “This,” he said, “is why I wanted to head for Spain in the first place: you always do this! Here are all these miserable offenders and all you can do is be gracious and merciful, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, and you don’t punish them! What is the point? It’s not fair! I might as well be dead!” (4:2-3) As the story draws to its close there is another episode of comedy involving a big tree-eating worm, and then the moral of the tale becomes clear: God’s mercy and compassion are indeed unbelievable, they go way beyond the human logic of what is fair and unfair.

The Book of Jonah is one of the fixed readings for Yom Kippur, the great day that ushers in the ten holy days of repentance on the synagogue calendar. This short satire—which we could also call a midrash (a legend or even a parable)—contains something deeply true in our experience of the ways of God. God’s mercy and generosity towards human beings, whether unbelievers in the midst of a storm like the sailors in this story, or sinners like the Ninevites, are simply beyond our calculations of what justice looks like, and beyond our wildest imaginings.

Certainly this deep truth inspired the parable told by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel this morning, about the workers in the vineyard. It is a parable that offends our sense of fairness; an ethical humanist would be unable to justify such bizarre labor practices. But the parable conveys a truth about God that almost goes too deep for words. Perhaps the only rational, immediate response is to be very angry and cry “Justice!” Or perhaps the appropriate response is to laugh uproariously. But when anger ebbs away and laughter subsides, then it is time get down on our knees to give most humble and hearty thanks for what the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the arduous compassion” of God. We have a God whose desire for goodness and mercy extends to us, even when we are confused, confusing, skeptical, half hearted, or unfathomably wicked. This is the truth of the phrase, “God is Love:” his faithfulness far outweighs any disobedience we can think up, his desire for goodness subverts any evil we conspire to do, and his economy of justice means so much more than we—especially in these anxious times of war and terror—can possibly imagine. Praise God that this is true. Pray God that we may live into such truth. Amen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema