Posts Tagged 'Nineveh'

For Jan. 25, 2015: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s worst enemy, the idolatrous and repressive Assyrian empire. Jonah’s first response to the call to preach repentance there was to flee by ship; it landed him in the belly of a huge fish. This time, Jonah goes partway into the city—and the whole city pays heed, and God chooses not to destroy them.

The Response                                                      Psalm 62:6-14

In a world of wickedness, the psalmist identifies our hope. It is not in the nobility of the highly placed nor even in the virtue of ordinary folk; it is not in amassing riches however one can; it is in the Lord.

The Epistle                                                           1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul believed that the end of the world as we know it was coming in his lifetime or that of his hearers. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, he reminds them that doing business as usual, in marrying, mourning, rejoicing, buying and selling, or dealing with the world, is no longer the way to live. The right time for the work of God is now.

The Gospel                                                          Mark 1:14-20

Very early in the book of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near! When he calls disciples from among the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee, they respond (as Mark is at pains to tell us twice) immediately.

Further thoughts

The book of Jonah is an ironic and sometimes comic story about a man who is called by God to preach repentance to his nation’s bitter enemies; his attempt to run away from doing God’s incomprehensible bidding nearly causes a shipwreck in a storm sent by God, and his success in preaching repentance to hated foreigners makes him throw a tantrum. Christians tend to see in Jonah a type or foreshadowing of Jesus: they seize on the call to preach to gentiles, they point to Jonah’s insistence that the terrified sailors save themselves by throwing him overboard, and they note that Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly lasts just as long as Jesus’ time in death. Jews, for their part, read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as a parable of repentance and mercy: they observe that it pleased God neither to destroy Nineveh once its people repented nor to destroy Jonah even though he rebelled, and thus it is both vital and good to be conscious of one’s sin. In both faiths, there is a tradition of substitutionary expiation, or blotting out sin by relocating it. In the days of the Temple in Judaism, one of the many rituals involved symbolically placing the sins of the people over the past year on a goat that would be sent out into the wilderness and herded off a cliff. Christianity no longer countenances animal sacrifice, but it is a mainstay of the faith that the good news is that Jesus died to take away our sin.

In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus launches his ministry by announcing good news: the kingdom of God is near. It is a little challenging to square this pronouncement with the position that what is good news is that Jesus has died for our sins, for the simple reason that, as he speaks, Jesus is still very much alive in this world. This raises the possibility that something other than substitutionary expiation is at work, or at the very least something in addition. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that a promise to be died for at some point in the future will suffice to motivate Simon and Andrew and James and John to drop everything in the present to run after Jesus. As D. Mark Davis points out, Mark 1:14-20 doesn’t tell us what that is. But Mark 10: 28-31 may give part of the answer. When Peter points out that the he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” What he offers, in other words, pays off not only in the future but in this age.

What else can that be, in the here and now, but the chance—the call, the duty, and the inestimable privilege—to love and be loved and make the world new like God?

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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?