Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Dowd, OHCProper 20 A - Sunday, September 18, 2011
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Picture credit: Watton On The Web
The Dove of Truth
In the Name of Mercy, Love, and Truth. Amen.
Over the years of my professional life I had the good fortune of developing friendships with three different different people who worked in human resources and two other people who worked on negotiating teams for unions. And in all five cases, I think I know exactly how each would have responded to Jesus if he told them the parable we just heard. Unfair! They would have cried. The HR types would have thought that story was terribly unfair to management, while the union types would have felt that it was unfair to labor.
And by human standards they would be right. Management should not be expected to pay people for work that was not done, and Labor would agree that it was unfair to the person who worked a full day to get paid the same as one who worked for one hour. But Jesus, as the culmination of all the prophets, was not your ordinary man. He was, in fact, here to teach us once and for all about God's infinite mercy.
This is a lesson we seem to need to learn over and over again and Scripture is filled with the stories of God's mercy. One of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Jonah because I can so relate to him. This is not the perfect prophet who hears God's call, responds brilliantly, and is remembered for his holiness. No, this is a prophet that certainly does hear God's call, then argues with God, flees from God, ignores God, gets himself thrown overboard by a bunch of pagan sailors who are actually more faithful to God than he is, ends up in the belly of a very large fish, makes a little retreat in that belly, prays quite fervently, gets spit up on land, argues some more with God, finally agrees to do what God was asking him to do all along, calls the people of Nineveh to repentance, ends up sitting outside of town sulking – and all this in just three chapters where our story this morning picks up. Now that is a prophet I can relate to. In fact, it is a prophet I have been wrestling with for a while now.
Jonah is perhaps the most problematic of all the prophets from a historical perspective. Time, place, setting all seem somewhat confused, to say nothing of the fish. Jewish legend teaches that Jonah was the little boy of the widow of Zarephath, raised from the dead by the Prophet Elijah. His name, Jonah, means “Dove” and the first verse of the book tells us that his father's name is Amittai (Amatay)which means The Truth. So Yonah ben Amatay is “Dove, son of The Truth.” Now to a Christian that sounds especially holy. But to ancient Jews that name might have evoked laughter or perhaps an ironic smile, for a dove in this context was one that flitted about from “truth” to “truth” with small “t's”, and occasionally landed on the Truth, with a capital “t”. I would argue that Jonah's message for God's people is so important, so profound, that a Christian interpretation of his name has ultimately prevailed, as a kind of prefiguring of the Son of Truth who was still to come.
The reason I feel so connected to Jonah has to do with his constant wrestling with God. He is a character that Sholem Aleichem could have written and was perhaps inspired by. This ancient Tevye was forever bargaining, arguing and running from God – only to return, in order to obey God's call, and then to ask one more question, to pose one more challenge.
Our story this morning picks up with the fact that Jonah, having been spit up on land has finally gone to Nineveh and walked across that great city announcing God's judgment that will be reigned down on all living creatures within its confines.
And here it is important to know something about Nineveh. The ruins of Nineveh lie directly across the Tigris River from Mosul in present day Iraq. In fact, Mosul' suburbs still cover much of those ruins. Now during Jonah's life, Nineveh was a major Assyrian city, though not its capital. By the time the Book of Jonah was written, however, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. This was no ordinary capital of an alien state or even an enemy state. This was the capital of an Empire which was the dire enemy of the Jewish people and one so evil that is has been compared to the Berlin of the Nazis. Genocide, mass enslavement, torture, desecration of religious sites and the most vicious ways of killing people in an agonizing and grotesque way are some of the highlights of this Empire.
So Jonah and the Chosen People had good reason to fear the Assyrians, and even understandable reasons for hating them. God tells Jonah to proclaim to the people of Nineveh that “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah's resistance to proclaiming that message was not out of a lack of faith or even fear. His resistance, having been steeped in the faith of his forebears, was due to the fact that, at least in this case, God's word was probably not going to be any good. Jonah rebelled against the fact that God, being who he is, would not guarantee the destruction of Nineveh. He knew God to well. To be sure, if the people of Nineveh did not repent, then God could be counted on to destroy that wicked city. But if the people chose to repent, then God would most likely show mercy to even these most evil Assyrians.
In our time the Hebrew Scriptures often get a bad wrap. People like to write off this beautiful collection of inspired texts as “God's way to smite everyone down.” But in fact, for those steeped in the faith, they hear the Hebrew Scriptures as filled with God's attempt to inspire repentance on the part of the people so that he can share his mercy. This would of course culminate with the Incarnation, Passion and Death of Christ as God's penultimate attempt to call to us, plead with us, beg us to repent of our own evil ways.
Well, even before that, the people of Nineveh not only heard God's call as proclaimed by Jonah, but heeded it as well. For forty days they repented, wore sack-cloth, sat in ashes, and even had their animals do the same. God was so pleased with his Assyrian children that he forgave them and showered abundant mercy upon them. And this really ticked off Jonah.
So he marched himself out of town, sat down to sulk, then told God off. Jonah rails at God for being too merciful, slow to anger, overflowing with love and totally forgetting that he had said anything about punishing the Ninevehites. And it is God's response to the crabby Jonah that is so moving to me: “Should I not” God says “be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from the their left?”
And there it is: God knows we are ignorant of his ways. We do not know our right from our left. We know justice, He knows mercy. We want revenge, He wants mercy. We have sin, He has mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. The entire Judea-Christian tradition might well be summed up with that word: Mercy. God is desperate to share his mercy, so desperate that he would send his own Son to make mercy Incarnate. To live mercy among us, to die in mercy for us, to rise with mercy so each of his brothers and sisters might do the same, those 120,000 Ninevites being just the tip of the iceberg.
But to live into God's mercy requires repentance, be that on an individual basis or a communal basis. Repentance is defined by New Testament scholars with the Greek word metnoia, which translates as “understanding something differently after thinking something over.” It implies a turning around or heading in a different direction. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk, says that Jesus’ call to “repent is an invitation to grow up and become a fully mature human being.” The word repentance has a negative connotation for many people. In an earlier time in our lives it may have been used as a club to beat us over the head. But repentance, if we take Father Keating’s definition, calls us to be adults. To turn around and face the reality of our situation, the reality of our sin.
And what is the definition of sin? Plainly put, sin is the willful separation of humanity from God, ignoring God, behaving in ways that are not God-like. Biblical sin is very often much more communal, rather than personal. Certainly personal sin does occur, but so much of the focus in the Ancient mindset was communal. So, for example, Jonah wasn't concerned with the king's sin, he was concerned with how the entire city of Nineveh had separated themselves from God? By committing intense and outrageous violence against people all over the the present day Middle East and Central Asia, was how those Ninevehites had separated themselves from God. But eventually, these people heard Jonah's message from God and turned themselves around.
And with all this wrestling with Jonah and with God that I have been doing of late, I cannot help but wonder what Jonah would say to us, to the community of Americans, if he were sent to us to speak God's word right here, right now in September of 2011. From the time of the earliest European settlers in Jamestown, Santa Fe, or Plymouth, we Americans have fancied ourselves a Christian nation, one that has been set apart – the city on the hill. And yet, if we were to spend some time looking at our history, and certainly to these last ten years, I wonder if we could really claim that our right hand knows what our left is doing.
It seems to me that Jonah might know that we are in great need of God's mercy. While not the Assyrian Empire, in September 2011, the Unites States is currently this world's Empire. In these last ten years, we have reigned down violence on nations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, on the innocent and guilty alike, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men, in a quest to protect ourselves from a handful of terrorists. We continue to be willing to look away as some of God's children are tortured in the name of our security. The American Empire is fueled by oil which enslaves our own people to its use and to supporting on-going war in the oil producing regions of the world.
I think Yonah ben Attay, Dove, son of the Truth, would point us to Jesus, the Son of God and would call us to turn away from our idols of oil, weapons, and Empire. Yonah ben Attay would, I think, turn us to repentance, to worship the one true God who is so filled with life and mercy. And I think he would turn us away from those lifeless and merciless idols which can only lead to enslavement, torture, and a merciless death.
In all my wrestling with this I hear a very faint echo that seems to be getting stronger: “Should I not” God seems to be asking “be concerned about America, that great country, in which there are more than 300 million persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, God calls to us. Mercy is God's invitation to us – right here, right now, today. Thank God, his mercy endures forever. AMEN.