Jonah and empire

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Revd Dr Ray Williamson
25th January 2009, Epiphany Three

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Another long weekend — tomorrow being as Australia Day — a day so named and observed because it is the day on which European settlement began in Port Jackson in 1788. Established as a colony of Britain, this land became part of an empire — an empire that was developing into the most powerful world force for a long time.

Coincidentally, our first reading this morning — from the Hebrew Scriptures — takes us back to the time of another empire — the Persian empire, which at the height of its power (200 yrs, 6th-4th cent. BC) was the most extensive so far known. Long before the rise of Alexander the Great, the Persians had created a far-flung political regime that encouraged citizens to widen their horizons, to lengthen their trade arteries, and to jostle with people and ideas from other lands. The small Hebrew nation was within that empire. Indeed, it was the Persian defeat of the Babylonian empire that made it possible for the Hebrews to return from exile in Babylon, and it was then with the blessing of the Persian government that they began to rebuild their nation.

That reconstruction, along the lines of a very exclusive and nationalistic community, with the Jerusalem Temple as its centre and the Mosaic Law as its constitution, was carried out with great vigour, under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. Indeed, its exclusive nature was very severe: Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them,

"You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of our ancestors, and do his will: separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives".       And they did so!

But there were also other currents within Judaism, currents that are reflected in the book of Psalms and other anonymous literature composed in this period. At the very time when Jewish exclusivism was developing, wisdom teachers were reflecting on the meaning of life in an atmosphere of thought that was far more international. And in some circles voices of protest were raised against the narrow exclusivism of Nehemiah and Ezra — the book of Ruth was one such protest. So, too, was the story of Jonah!

Like so many post-exilic authors, this writer does not disclose his name. Instead, he presents his message in the guise of a story concerning a prophet who lived, probably back in the 8th C. BC. This is not a biographical account of what actually happened, but a short story told to drive home a prophetic message to the writer's generation — presumably in the 4th C. BC, perhaps towards the end of the Persian period.

The story tells of how Jonah was commissioned by God to go to Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and to preach that the city would be destroyed if it did not repent. No task could have been more distasteful — for the Assyrians, who had oppressed the Hebrew people terribly, were bitterly detested. So Jonah ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. From Joppa, the fugitive took a ship bound for Tarshish, in the western Mediterranean. Rather than going east, Jonah went west! So, God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and the panic-stricken sailors cried out to their own gods to discover the cause of the divine anger that was on the verge of destroying the ship. They reckoned Jonah, who was sleeping peacefully, to be the problem, and brought him to the captain. Jonah was thrown overboard — and suddenly there was calm. God, however, prepared a great fish (the story doesn't say a whale) to swallow Jonah, and after three days and nights, he was vomited forth upon the land.

Once again, the commission was given to Jonah to preach to Ninevah. This time, Jonah went, and began to preach to the wicked city, only to be shocked that his preaching was successful. The whole city was converted and God 'relented' of the punishment he had planned. Jonah was so angry and discouraged at this turn of events that he wished to die. On the outskirts of the city he made a shelter for himself, and sat down beneath its protective shade to observe what would happen. God had commanded a leafy plant to grow up as an umbrella over Jonah's head; but the next day, God sent a worm to destroy it, thus exposing Jonah to the heat of the sun again. When Jonah expressed pity for the plant, God rebuked him for not being able to understand that God would show at least as much pity toward the city of Ninevah, with its 120,000 human beings and many cattle.

Most people think of Jonah as a "fish story" — perhaps the biggest one ever told. The author has a great sense of literary style, full of abrupt changes of direction in thought, unexpected twists in the plot, and some very humorous touches. The writer's contemporaries probably roared with laughter when they read that the word of the Lord had come very solemnly to Jonah to go to Ninevah, but instead herose to flee to Tarshish— i.e. in the opposite direction! We are also treated to a scene of great comedy despite the danger that it describes about the ship in peril. Jonah seems to be asleep in the midst of a huge storm, while the sailors implore their gods in vain. When they accuse him of being the problem, he agrees to be a human sacrifice to calm his angry God. He is swallowed by a great fish and in its belly sings a grand hymn of thanksgiving to God.

The humorous side of this story is very evident; but so too is the power of its message!

The point to be made, of course, is that the author of the Book of Jonah knew that his audience would enjoy the story and not be forced to choose whether it could actually have happened or not, or whether the fish was a whale or a shark. Only in very recent times have Christians forgotten the ability of the Bible to tell stories to make its points, and tried instead to explain everything 'scientifically'. Modern literalists have searched for a 'whale' big enough to accommodate a man, and they have tried to produce evidence that there have been other instances of persons who have come out alive after a short stay in a whale's stomach. However, once we recognise that this is a short story (a parable), all the speculation is beside the point. Like the book of Ruth, the Jonah story is a piece of religious propaganda — in the best sense.

The major literary style of the book is that of irony. Jonah does everything a good prophet should not — from fleeing, to refusing to speak, to complaining that God does not fulfil all the threats of doom he made Jonah preach. Also note that God saves Jonah from death despite his 'sin', yet Jonah will not let the Ninevites be saved from death even though they repent. The author also makes the very sharp point in the final verses that Jonah cared more for a leafy plant than for all those people — not to mention the cattle!

In short, Jonah is both entertainment and lesson. The point of the parable is that the Jews, in so far as they were retreating into the walls of an exclusive community, were actually trying to flee from God's commission — a commission that was stated most notably in the poems of Second Isaiah (of the Exile). The Jewish people were rebuked for supposing in their pride that God's purpose was restricted to the preservation of the Jewish community, even at the destruction of their enemies, and they were reminded that other people — yes, even their enemies — were embraced within God's mercy. In the eyes of the author of Jonah, unfortunately the Jews had forgotten that their witness was above all to a God of forgiveness. At the very time when policies were fostering a narrow nationalism, the unknown prophetic writer of Jonah proclaimed that Israel's call was not a guarantee of privilege and prestige but a responsibility: to be a light to the nations, in order that God's salvation might reach to the end of the earth. Perhaps, too, there is a pointed message to the community around Jerusalem, the great city of God — if even Ninevah can turn to God in repentance, how much more should Israel do the same, and beg forgiveness.

What of all this for today? We can easily see the relevance of it in view of what has happened in Gaza in the last few weeks: the nationalism and exclusivism that characterises modern-day Israel is not essentially different from that which prevailed in the society 2.5 millennia ago — against which the story of Jonah was an alternative voice. And that alternative voice still rings out across the ages — and it speaks a message of change, of hope.

And we can sense its relevance for now after a week that has seen today's most powerful empire inaugurate a new leader. It is difficult to underestimate the psychological resonance of the change that that brings. It is about something much more than the historic watershed of the election of the first black President of the US. What the shift in leadership signifies is the defiant assertion (as the Assyrians discovered in the Jonah story) that nothing that is wrong has to stay wrong. The page of history can be turned.

People of faith have an intuitive understanding of this. The teller of the Jonah story knew it. And it is absolutely essential that there be people of faith within each and every society who witness to the conviction that we are continually offered the chance of new beginnings — because the forgiveness and compassion of God is real, and is for all; that within the providence of God our lives are filled with passing instants, if we could but discern them, when an opening appears through which we can pass to change the world into a better place. There are the epochal moments of course that we all know: the Berlin Wall falls, Nelson Mandela walks free from the prison of apartheid, Ian Paisley shakes the hand of Martin McGuinness, those who were born in a time of slavery live long enough to vote for a black man to enter the White House. These are moments of new beginnings. They are to be embraced.

In his own time, the author of the Jonah story believed that his nation had lost its way, had strayed from its purpose, and he cleverly, even humorously, brought to it a powerful prophetic reminder that what is wrong does not have to stay wrong. Similarly, we may feel that values we once thought were unchangeable need some urgent defence — most particularly on the basis of a faith that witnesses to the forgiveness and compassion of God that is for all.