Archive for the 'Jonah' Category

For Sept. 21, 2014: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Jonah 3:10-4:11

The reluctant prophet Jonah has finally followed instructions and preached destruction to the wicked Assyrian capital, Nineveh; when the citizens, from the king on down, repent in sackcloth, the Lord is moved to spare the city—and Jonah is outraged.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-8

Psalm 145’s 21 verses each begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, making it a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise that transcends time as generations and individuals proclaim the Lord’s greatness, works, power, splendor, might, goodness, righteousness, and compassion. Fairness, however, is not on the list.

The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

Whether he liked it or not, Jonah was sent by the Lord to help save the Assyrians of Nineveh. In Philippians 1:21-30, written in the last years of his life, Paul explains that heaven beckons, but in the meantime it is both duty and privilege to labor and suffer in this life so that gentiles may see themselves as God’s people.

The Gospel            Matthew 20:1-16

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which is unique to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus compares likens God’s way of doing business to a landowner who pays casual laborers just as well for working only one hour as for working a full day.

 

 

Further thoughts

If a “sore loser” is one who pouts at someone else’s win, a “sore winner” could be one who pouts when someone else fails to lose by a big enough margin. Are Jonah and the early laborers merely sore winners? Well, maybe.

Jonah’s pique isn’t wholly without merit. To begin with, Nineveh is in the far north of Mesopotamia, well over five hundred miles of dusty desert road from Jerusalem. Worse, Nineveh is pagan and the capital of the same Assyrian empire that in the mid-8th century BC has both Judah and Israel well under the heel of its hobnailed sandals. Why on earth wouldn’t Jonah regard Ninevites en masse as his enemy and therefore God’s enemy?

For the laborers, “the usual daily wage” is a denarius, about 18 cents—a very minimal wage, in a day when economic disaster is at least as close to the poor as it is today. Why shouldn’t they seek every possible penny?

But here is the kingdom of God. The odd-sounding “persons who do not know their right hand from their left” reckons up Ninevites who cannot be to blame for the empire’s misdeeds: the infants and toddlers, whom it pleases God to regard with all their elders as fondly as Jonah regards his shade bush. Laborers should accept the wage they agreed to but shouldn’t have to sell themselves short, and the businesses and economies that offer steady work at good wages with decent benefits are doing God’s will. And if God can be patient with Jonah’s guff and the laborers’ grumbling, God can certainly endure ours: as Anne Lamott suggests, in God’s ears, even “I don’t believe in You, and You’re not being fair!” seems to count as a kind of prayer.

What if I build the kingdom of God whenever I’m not being a sore winner?

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For Jan. 22, 2012: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When God first sent Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah tried to run away from God. This attempt makes more sense when we realize that Nineveh was not only un-Jewish, it was the capital city of Israel’s biggest enemy, the repressive Assyrian empire. In today’s reading, Jonah obeys. How do you think the Assyrians will respond?

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Whether or not we believe that the end times will occur within our lifetimes, the message of Paul’s first letter to Corinth is timeless and timely: for living the faith and doing the work of God, the right time is always right now.

Further thoughts
Two of today’s scriptures pose challenges for us that are familiar—and familiarly difficult to contemplate. The letter to the Corinthians explains that business as usual is over, because the end of the world is imminent; Paul believed this and lived this, leaving the privileges of a Pharisee to serve as God’s errand boy to the Gentiles. At the other end of the social scale, the gospel shows the humble fisherfolk Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything to follow Jesus. This is clearly serious business: if our worth as Christians hangs on our willingness to forsake all our other responsibilities at a word, most of us today just don’t measure up.

For the rest of us, there’s Jonah. The book of Jonah is full of ironies and surprises and some of the Bible’s funniest material. Though it’s easy to sneer at Jonah, it’s wise to sympathize: what will a Jewish boy accomplish preaching repentance to this Mesopotamian empire of Jew-oppressing pagans? So Jonah sails for Tarshish, which could be in southern Turkey or northern Africa or even southern Spain—in short, Anywhere Else. When his ship nearly sinks, Jonah begs the terrified sailors to throw him overboard; God will save them, and drowning still gets him out of going to Nineveh. A huge fish sent by God swallows Jonah and pukes him up near home. Once Jonah’s decent again, God orders him back to Nineveh. Jonah goes this time, and succeeds wildly beyond expectation: Jonah 3:6-9 shows even the animals in sackcloth. God then elects to spare all the Ninevites— whereupon Jonah stomps off and pouts: how dare God change God’s mind and let these bad boys off the hook? God’s response is not to blast Jonah into next week for insubordination, but rather to give him shade.

The book of Jonah is read by Jews in its entirety on Yom Kippur, the very solemn Jewish Day of Atonement. Whether we choose God’s standard for behavior or Paul’s or the early disciples, we fall short, and it is appropriate to remember that and be sorry. But it is also vital not to get stuck there, nor to confine others there. Jonah helps us recall that God’s way is to bring mercies beyond expectation through improbable means and unlikely messengers—like you and me.