Jonah – God’s Petulant Prophet

Jonah is a petulant prophet. He fumes, he expresses his frustration with God by running as fast and far as he can to get away. All of which is why the book of Jonah is one of my favorite Biblical books. One can give credit to Jonah for honesty. He does not mince words with God about  what he thinks and what he wants to do. He runs from God’s call to go to Nineveh because he simply doesn’t like the people. He’d rather they were not warned. What he hopes for is that God rains down fire, brimstone and tons of lava on the city of Nineveh and its people. So he runs from God.

God has a way of searching after us when we run and Jonah’s run from God was no exception. Caught in a storm and with the throw of lots indicating he was the reason for the storm, he just asks to be thrown into the sea. Jonah would rather die than see the Ninevites’ saved. It would be a final escape from the persistent call of God. Even there his plan fails. Instead of certain death, he is rescued by a large fish and eventually spit out on the shore. Once again he encounters the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from his near death experience one would suspect there would be an authenticity about his message as he walks the city. So, Jonah shouts for the people to repent, hoping they won’t.

Yet, he is incredibly successful. Maybe it was the way he described being held in the stomach of a giant fish or being thrown into the stormy waters. For three days he walks the streets of Nineveh, fuming about being there. Having completed his task, he goes to edge of town and waits for  Operation Nineveh Storm to rain from the sky. But it doesn’t. Frustratingly for Jonah, the people believe him and repent. Even the king’s heart changes.

Jonah’s problem is that he doesn’t want God to love other people. He wants that for himself and his people.

Jonah’s strange trip to Nineveh is meant to teach him compassion. The story of Jonah ends with a word from God, after a plant gives Jonah shade for a day, then withers the next. He is distraught. God compares Jonah’s concern for the plant with his lack of concern for the 120,000 people living in the city. We are left wondering if Jonah’s heart was changed. Did the word mean anything to him. Was this reluctant prophet able to open his heart to love the other people God loves. Are we?

 

 

Jonah and God’s Too Persistent Call

The prophet Jonah has a tough time dealing with God’s love for his enemies. The book of Jonah takes everything that a good Israelite knew to be true and turns it upside down. Jonah hated the Ninevites. If he had his way, the city would be destroyed and Israel would be the better for it. But, God is God, and sometimes God asks us to do what we really don’t want to do. For Jonah, the call came to go to Nineveh, to cry out against it and to warn the residents of impending destruction. They would be overthrown and their way of life radically changed, should they survive.

Jonah fled, as those whom God calls are prone to do. He fled as far as he could away from God’s voice. He left thinking that if he went far enough away, God would find someone else to go to Nineveh. At first it looked like Jonah may have succeeded. He was able to head in the opposite direction, finding a boat that was setting sail to Tarshish. He reckoned however, without the persistent call of God. A storm rises up. It is a deadly storm. All the sailors cry out to their collective and independent gods. But the storm continues. They throw cargo overboard. By now they have nothing else they can do, so the crew casts lots in hopes of finding out who has brought the evil upon them. When the lot lands on Jonah, he doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility. He knows whom he is fleeing. It is his first discovery that one cannot run away from God or God’s call. Believing himself to blame, he tells the crew to toss him into the sea. Much to his surprise he finds himself in an unlikely rescue. Swallowed by a large fish, he lives in its belly, fervently praying. Rescued once more when the fish spews him onto dry land, again he hears the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from being rescued, Jonah reluctantly goes. To his dismay, the people take to heart his words. The king even issues a decree that all must fast and pray, wearing sackcloth as a sign of repentance.

Still Jonah hopes to see the destruction of the city. He waits for God to act. When God doesn’t overthrow the city, Jonah gets upset. One of Jonah’s problems with God is the he thinks God is too compassionate. He complains to God, that he fled in the first place, because he just knew that God would show mercy and he does not want mercy shown. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2-3) Jonah has a hard time with compassion. He has a difficult time with love for people who are not like him. He reeks of prejudice. God chooses mercy. Jonah chooses hate. God chooses compassion, Jonah waits for destruction.

As we inhibit this planet called earth, we have choices in how we respond to each other. We can let our hearts harden into hate, or we can learn how our differences enrich us. We already know where God is. God is on the side of mercy. God is on the side of compassion. God is also on the side of those whom God calls, reaching out and pulling us back into God’s compassionate love, even or especially when we run away.

Pope Francis and the Environment

Pope Francis has set off a wave of controversy in the past week. His fresh Vatican perspective comes as an energizing breath of air to those of us who have wished that Roman Catholicism was more focused on the concerns of Jesus and less on the church. So, I’ve applauded his recent comments on both the economy and on the environment.

The writer of Genesis made a point of telling us in the creation narratives that we are stewards of the earth. God calls the creation good. The earth and the sky, birds and fish, water and sun, animals and humans, flowers and trees – it’s all good. God then puts the care of creation into our hands. We are to have dominion over it. Which is not a license to use and abuse the earth, but to be responsible for it. The choice has always been ours. For centuries we have recognized the human contribution to our environment. We have had to reclaim the call to manage and care for the earth, to keep our waters’ fresh and our air pure. Late in the 13th century burning of sea-coal so polluted England’s air that King Edward penalized anyone caught burning it. Lead poisoning in public water supplies was recognized in Julius Caesar’s time.

I grew up in a home that valued the environment. Just as our farm neighbor’s were dependent upon the rain and the sun for the health of their crops and their livelihood, our fishing resort was also dependent upon an adequate supply of rain. Without it, lake levels dropped, fish froze out in the winter and worry about getting the mortgage paid colored our days. We learned about conservation. We were schooled in its importance. Today we have a much more global understanding of the impact of industry and energy policies on the earth.

I’ve been convinced by the numerous scientific studies which have warned that we are entering a major change in climate if we do not act in responsible ways now. Trends obvious in the scientific community in the 50’s and 60’s are escalating today. I think what Pope Francis wants us to realize is that we have a limited period of time to turn around in the way we are caring for the earth, before cataclysmic change occurs. In the book of Jonah, we find a man who doesn’t want to go to Nineveh warning the people that they will be destroyed if they do not change as a people. Maybe it was because the Ninevites could figure out that Jonah had no desire to be in their city, warning them of impending disaster, that they took to heart his words. The city changed. They repented, which means they turned around. They changed direction. The city was saved. I wonder as I read that scripture today, if it wasn’t so much that God chose not to destroy the city, as they were saved by changing from their self-destructive actions which would have brought about their inevitable end.

The prophetic word to change comes to us through ordinary people who have been given a word by God. Sometimes they are shepherds like Amos and other times they are religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Most often we have stoned the prophets, or tried mocking them into silence. But God’s truth will not be silenced. God’s love for all of creation is evident in the scriptures. One day we will look back at this time either as one when the world figured out we needed to work together to save the earth, or with regret that we didn’t act when we could. May all of our eyes be opened to God’s truth and may we act accordingly.