In today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary we find that there is a good deal to chew upon… Well, I assume too much. I figure a famous prophet like Jonah would have been well fed enough to require a good chewing. No, my wife doesn’t laugh at my jokes anymore. I think she’s afraid to encourage me. She doesn’t realize or at least admit to me that it is too late. That ship has sailed and I do my best not to be swallowed by whales.
Anyway, obviously today’s readings include a section from the story of Jonah. The section of Jonah includes the speech which Jonah makes from within the whale before being spit ashore. His voice comes to the Lord (in the temple (of course…that reading clearly points to a very solid temple-centric theology)). Jonah owns his place in the depths and offers a promise of sacrifice to God. Others turn to idols, but Jonah will come with thanksgiving to the temple. Jonah is effectively owning his place at the edge of death, is operating out of a place of desperation but hopefully also honesty, and is claiming that deliverance belongs to God alone. Jonah is spit out by the fish and reaches a place of safety.
A reading of Jonah will show that Jonah still doesn’t really care about the people of Nineveh. He waits for their destruction before the end. He waits for the Lord to destroy people who call on God to relent. Yes, he waits for God to do to others what he does not want God to do to him. Really, for being such an effective prophet Jonah does not understand mercy.
To be fair, it appears as if understanding is contagious as the reading from Matthew contains the statement made by Jesus to the Pharisees that no sign will be given but the sign of Jonah. Jesus rises from the grave after three days and Jesus seems to state quite clearly that the people of Nineveh will stand in judgment because they repented after Jonah came. Their ability to stand in judgment comes from their willingness to repent when the word comes from Jonah.
I wonder what this could mean for us as a people. It is likely that early readers saw this as a condemnation of Jewish people and it has been used many times to foment anti-semitism, but I’d like to push past that point. The world doesn’t need any more anti-semitism.
I wonder if there aren’t communities out there who have at one point or another found themselves surrounded by enemies with weapons that were more than willing to slaughter. I wonder if they called out to God, God relented, and a word was spoken to “the fish” willing to swallow them whole. Could such a community stand in judgment over other communities that are more than willing to use violence to get their way? Could such a community stand in judgment over communities that enter into the pond of life to eat other fish and consequently risk being eaten? It is a bit off the original point, but is this a possibility as we read texts like these?
How many places have we been forgiven only to hold that same place in judgment over another? How many places have we found grace only to turn around and deny it to others? How many times do we effectively act blindly towards our neighbors while ignoring our own shortcomings?
When will Jonah learn? When will we learn? The God who scares the sea walks in our midst with hills skipping away. We should learn well. We should do so in a timely fashion. Whale teeth aren’t small and I bet they hurt.