Sympathizing with Jonah

Epiphany 3B (RCL)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

I’ve never quite understood the image of fishing for people. I just imagine all these wet, naked people flopping around in the hold of the boat. Why should anyone want to do that? We typically hear this story as one of evangelism. In Luke’s Gospel, before the disciples leave and follow Jesus, he has them put out to deep water and cast their nets, even after they have caught nothing all night. Of course, they catch so many fish the boat begins to sink. I’ve always associated this story with the “Gentile mission.” The Church starts fishing of the “other side” of the boat, and lo and behold, all these people come aboard. But in Mark and Matthew, there is nothing to suggest the “Gentile mission.” The four fishermen, two poor, two a little better off, just follow Jesus — no explanation. Perhaps its the imagery of the net that is compelling. Connecting people onto a network, restoring them to their place in community, linking up Christians all around the sea, might make following Jesus worthwhile.

But, today, I am particularly attracted to poor old Jonah. This is the second time God has called him. The first time, he refused, and ran toward Tarshish, only to be discovered and thrown to the fishes. God has the fish vomit him up, and says, “Let’s try this again.” Jonah goes to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, that arch-enemy of Israel which conquered her in 722 BCE. Jonah walks a day’s journey into the city and preaches one rather half-hearted sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, wow, the whole city puts on sackcloth and ashes. Jonah has to know it wasn’t the effectiveness of his preaching, but only God’s mercy at work.

You know how the story goes from here. Jonah says to God, “I knew this would happen. Now I look the fool.” He pouts under the cucumber plant, until it dies and then pouts for the cucumber plant. God asks him if he does well to be angry, and he says, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Sounds like a two-year old’s tantrum. But Jonah finds himself in the position of every missionary. He ends up caring for the people he was sent to preach to, even if his original motive was hell fire and brimstone.

On Monday, ENS ran an article about the Lord’s Resistance Army’s activities in the Diocese of Mundri, just across the Yei River from the Diocese of Lui. As we began to look carefully at the place-names in the article, and a map of Southern Sudan, we realized that one of the villages being terrorized by the LRA, Ladingwa, is just 15 to 20 km due west across the Yei from Lozoh, Advent’s sister parish in Lui. Deb and I went to Lozoh for Church on 4 January. These people served us lunch as honored guests in the Church piyat. And now, they are sheltering the IDPs from Ladingwa, worrying that the LRA could move across the river. I’m feeling a bit like Jonah. I didn’t bargain on this aspect of the mission trip. These places and people are now real to me. Damn it, God! Why did you make me care? Especially when there is nothing I can do but pray (and write to every official I can think of to urge them to make peace in Sudan a top priority). I’m like Jonah under the cucumber, worrying that it may die so easily. Not fair. But should I be immune for care, when God is not. The book of Jonah ends with the marvelous line, from God’s lips: “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from there let, not to mention many cattle?”

One thought on “Sympathizing with Jonah”

  1. …These places and people are now real to me. Damn it, God! Why did you make me care?…

    Perhaps to tell us!


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