If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today. First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.
I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.
I would keep Deborah, for sure. And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right?
Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.
Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)
In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. — (Hosea 1:2-3:5)
And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.
But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah. Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish. But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.
Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.
In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind. God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites. Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away. And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them. Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites. So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.
Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine. Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.
Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.
I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy. I presume they must have ample stomachs.
But one big enough to hold a person, for three days?
Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?
I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.
At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh. God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.
I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish. He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot. Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?
But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh. Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message.
So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo. His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.
We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh. We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.
Why did Jonah dislike them so? Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah? Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?
Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture? Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’? Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?
Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.
Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life? Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know?
Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God. Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking. You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?
God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken. I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses. Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.
I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures. I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.
There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.
It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news. It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules. It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.
And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy. It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world.
It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done.
There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen. There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.
And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.
These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments. We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities.
But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits. God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news. God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.
And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security. God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way. God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!
That’s why God sent Jesus to us. That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity. God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways. We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.
Because God loves it away.
God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish. God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.
God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land. God loves us out of our shame. God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.
But the story doesn’t stop here.
God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.
God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others. And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.
But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.
God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.
Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.