YEAR B: EPIPHANY 3
(Sunday between January 21and January 27)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The reading today comes from the beginning of the second half of the Book of Jonah. It has been chosen partly because of the similarity between Jonahís call to the Ninevites for repentance and Jesusí call for repentance and proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (1:14-20). In many ways the similarity ends there. Jonah, in contrast to Jesus, is the most reluctant of prophets. He has done everything he could to escape the mission God has given him (Jonah 1-2). It is only after the most extraordinary, and even ridiculous tale, that we find him much against his will doing what God initially asked. The fact that Jon 3:1 begins in similar vein to Jon 1:1 underlines this Ďnew startí. Also by way of contrast, Jonah is sent to preach to Gentiles, particularly the people of that great Assyrian city Nineveh, the capital of the empire which had many times conquered and oppressed the people of Israel and Judah in the 9th Ė 8th centuries BCE. There may be more parallels between Jonahís task and Paulís mission to the Gentiles than with the proclamation of Jesus.
But biblical texts are not there simply to repeat what other texts say. Sometimes it is only by setting two texts side by side and noting their differences as well as their similarities that we hear the word of God within them. The contrasts between the reading from Jonah and the Gospel today are enlightening. Mark 1:16-20 tells of Jesusí call of the first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John. In typical Mark fashion their response is immediate and they follow Jesus. In contrast, Jonahís story is one in which he does all he can to avoid Godís call. Instead of heading north-east to Nineveh, he sails west, and when God sends the storm upon the ship, he is all too willing to be cast overboard and drown rather than heed the divine call (Jon 1:12). Only after the amusing story of God sending a great fish to swallow Jonah and later regurgitate him (Jonah 2), do we find him in a place from which he can now go about his God-given task. But even in this his reluctance persists. He cannot, in the end, believe that God is willing to accept the repentance of these foreign peoples (Jon 4:5). In fact, all the way through the story Jonah, the reluctant prophet, leaves behind him repentant and worshipping foreigners who, in spite of his actions, have perceived the presence of God in the world (cf. 1:16). Jonah cannot accept the magnanimity of God in his grace toward all peoples. Jonah cannot accept that God can be forgiving toward the Ninevites. The story of Jonah is a satire of a kind of discipleship that is neither open, nor really understanding of the nature and breadth of Godís gracious desire to forgive.
The beginning of Markís Gospel speaks with strength about the power of Godís claim upon the lives of his people within the context of Godís work in the world. Jesus proclaims boldly the advent of the kingdom of God, and the first part of the Gospel vividly pictures that (e.g. Mark 1:21-28). The disciples are invited to participate in this great event. The Book of Jonah, on the other hand, pictures one called by God who struggles with his own prejudice, preconception, and pride. The message of repentance is as relevant, maybe even more so, to the one who has already heard it and is called to proclaim it as it is to others (cf. the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32). The gift of Godís forgiveness and the turning of lives in that, is something to be cherished and enjoyed in others as much as in ourselves.
But the story of Jonah goes further than this. It not only traces the steps of a reluctant prophet, but it celebrates the willingness and joy of others to hear Godís call. Jonah finally speaks the message God has given him for the Ninevites in what amounts to five words in Hebrew (Jon 3:4). In spite of the enormous size of the city (the description is of a city much bigger than any ancient city we know of), and Jonahís lack of mention of God in his short speech, the people of Nineveh, even their king, hear his proclamation and repent. Again this is meant to be a humorous story as even the animals are to don sackcloth and ashes in repentance and worship (v. 8). The point is, as in the Gospel story, it is the power of God which makes it possible for others to perceive Godís grace and turn. It is not the strength, boldness, courage or cleverness of prophets or disciples that allows it to happen, but simply the grace of the One who stands behind the message. Neither Jonahís reluctance nor the willingness of Jesusí disciples is paramount in the economy of Godís kingdom. It is the power of the word of God itself which opens lives up and turns them around.
Finally, we ought not to overlook, or be dismissive of the comedic quality of Jonah. This is one book in the Bible at which we are supposed to laugh (there are others also). We ought not to neglect the importance of laughter and comedy in the story of Godís kingdom. Jonah (both the book and the character) is meant to make us laugh. This is so because behind the gracious gift of God to his people (both Nineveh and Jonah) is a joy that cannot be contained within the confines of a serious demeanour. It is so also because one of the only ways we are able to perceive our own faults and need of repentance, is to see them parodied in the ridiculous behaviour of an idiot like Jonah.
Like all serious comedy, however, Jonah speaks not to a world which would seek to gloss over its pain with trivialities. Rather it brings laughter into a world where serious voices, be they religious, political, economic, or military, would tell us that we need to take ourselves so seriously that we cannot break the boundaries we have set up to keep others at a distance. Jesusí proclamation of the coming near of the kingdom of God and of the calling of his disciples is an expression of Godís disarming humour which challenges every life denying limitation set by human hand with its infectious joy.
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