I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Round Table this week on Speaking the Truth. And I was a little anxious going in because I went with an agenda. I’m convinced that one of the most important elections in our County for sometime could happen this Tuesday when we decide the democratic candidate for prosecuting attorney. I’ve learned through working with Friends of Restorative Justice just how important this office is. The prosecuting attorney decides which cases are prosecuted, how plea bargains are offered, what kind of bail we allow. These decisions and the amount of discrimination in the office–prosecutors offices are rife with discriminatory practices as we learned in the movie Just Mercy–deeply shape the lives of especially Black and Brown and Poor people in our county. The young multiracial multi faith coalition Liberate Don’t Incarcerate has a scorecard on the Prosecutor’s race and I went to the Interfaith Round Table meeting with a call to encourage my fellow faith leaders to look at the materials the Friends of Restorative Justice and Liberate Don’t Incarcerate have produced about this election. I wasn’t super comfortable about the idea of pushing my agenda on this group, even though I had the encouragement of the Director to do so. When we went to break out rooms, one of my colleagues talked about how he was preparing materials for Sunday on the Jonah story, and how we need to have the confident to speak our call, like Jonah. In that moment it was a word I needed to hear. When we went back into the main group I spoke first and shared what I had to say. People where grateful for the information.
One of my favorite memories from childhood, I was about eight, was a summer all church retreat when we focused on the story of Jonah. Jim Snider, a big athletic man from my church, and I, acted out the story. There was a lake at the camp where we were retreating and I was taken out into the lake in a boat. Then I was thrown out of the boat into the water. Jim, already in the lake, swam up to me and grabbed me and swam out away from shore, keeping his big body between my tiny one and the eyes of the congregation. Then after awhile he swam back to shore and threw me up from the water onto the beach.
The story of Jonah has remained one of my favorites ever since. It’s a story that rewards many different kinds of attention. It’s one of the few Old Testament stories that actually works pretty well as a children’s story. But it’s also an anomaly in the Bible as a text that bridges the prophetic writings and the wisdom literature through folklore with it’s fantastical fish who can keep a human alive for three days and three nights, a plant that grows in a day and is felled by a worm in a night, and a whole city that engages in species inclusive repentance. It works as an allegory, folklore, and prophecy. There are strong theological, ecological, ethical, and rhetorical arguments. And finally each different character in the story has something to teach us.
Let me briefly review the plot so we have it in mind. God comes to send Jonah to Nineveh with a word. Jonah, for reasons we later learn have to do with his focus on the nation of Israel against other nations, doesn’t want to go the Nineveh because he doesn’t want God to forgive the Ninevites. So Jonah takes a boat to Tarshish to hide from God. The boat encounters a storm and the sailors interrogate Jonah, realize he is the likely cause of the storm, and threw him overboard. The sea calm and Jonah is taken inside a great fish, sent by God. Jonah spends three days inside the fish and is thrown up on the shore. God again calls him to go to Nineveh. It’s a large city; Jonah walks a day towards it’s center and proclaims, ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ The city repents, fasting and putting on sackcloth and renouncing evil ways and violent behavior. The fast and sackcloth are for everyone in the city, including all the animals. God saw their efforts and reconsiders overthrowing the city. Jonah is predictably petulant and asks God to just kill him right there. He leaves the city, makes himself a shelter and sits down in it to see what will happen to Nineveh. God caused a qiqayon plant grow up and provide shade for Jonah and soothe his frustration. The plant made Jonah happy. The next day God sent a worm to destroy the plant, and then a scorching east wind, and hot sun to beat down on Jonah. Jonah again begs for death. The story ends with this beautiful question, asked of Jonah, “You are concerned for the castor-oil plant which has not cost you any effort and which you did not grow, which came up in a night and has perished in a night. So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?’”
In the time that remains I want to look at this story from the perspective of a few of its characters with a mind towards the future of our church and county. I love how the message of this story changes depending on whose shoes we seek to stand in.
I’ll start with Jonah, who my friend from the Interfaith Round Table suggested teaches us confidence in our message. I might need to talk to him again about that interpretation. If Jonah is confident about something it is actually that Nineveh shouldn’t be saved. He seeks to run away from God; really never a great idea, but especially in folklore, and even in face of a whole city that repents, Jonah remains obstinate. God switches to the natural lesson of the qiqayon plant, and asks Jonah why God should not be concerned with Nineveh, but Jonah has given no indication that he is relenting in his anger; we leave the story unsure of his response. Our current lives also have lots of room for judgement. I know that I’m unrepentant in my attitude towards our current government, and perhaps also our current prosector. I do not expect that they can change. The one thing that Jonah does right is obey God when the time to prophesy to Nineveh comes. I wouldn’t like to think about what torment God would have found for him had he not given Nineveh the message, but he did do it, even if reluctantly.
Obedience is modeled throughout this story particularly by the non-human characters. God commands the qiqayon plant to grow in a day, and it does. God commands the worm to wither the plant and it does. God commands the East Wind to blow and it does. God doesn’t need to command the sun to shine down brightly. The sun is already obedient. All of these characters are personified in this text. All are seen as having agency, and employing that agency to follow God’s ways.
The next character I want to consider is the fish, which I’m going to assume is a whale. If Jonah’s whale was a blue whale or a humpback it couldn’t have swallowed him. These whales are baleen whales and have plates rather than teeth. They take in huge gulps of water and small plants and animals and then expel the water through these large baleen plates. But even if a human could survive that process the throat of these ways is only 10 centimeters wide. A sperm whale has a larger throat but also teeth to avoid. There is basically no possible way that a human could survive inside a whale for three days. The only other story in the Bible which parallels Jonah’s use of animals as characters is Balaam’s donkey that God grants speech to. The accomplishment of this whale is even more incredible than that protecting Jonah for three days. But we do have many stories of whales protecting humans and engaging in other kinds of cross species concern. So one of the lessons, and this is one of the keys lessons that the author of Jonah wishes to convey, is the lesson of obedience. God has commanded the whale to swallow Jonah and the whale understands that this also needs to mean protecting him, and throwing him up safe on the shore. The other lesson that the whale offers is one of memory. While in the whale Jonah has is only introspective moment in our story, and offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God. The whale allows Jonah to remember, both by giving him time and a place to think. And we also know that whales have good memories, a variety of cultures and languages, and that they engage in passing on knowledge to their offspring, from mother to daughter and mother to son.
Perhaps the most resonate character in this story for us, now, is the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, a city three days walk across. For an Israelite like Jonah going to Nineveh wasn’t just going to a foreign city that he didn’t care about. Jonah might have also feared for his safety. One analogy might be a Jewish person going to Berlin in 1936 expecting repentance. Another might be a Black person going to Washington DC in 2020. Remarkably, Nineveh listens. There is a great deal of hope to be found in thinking of ourselves in the place of Nineveh in this story. And it does seem like cities like Portland and communities like ours at Shalom are open to repentance now more than we have ever been. There is also a lot of humility to be found in realizing how complete the repentance of the Ninevites was. It makes sense to step back for a moment at this point and remember that Nineveh was not a part of Israel, but that Jonah is sent by God there. Robert Alter says, “The God that Jonah has such difficulties with because of his Israelite nationalist mind-set is not chiefly the God of Israel but the God of the whole world, of all creatures large and small. God is not a God you can pin down to national settings. God exercises magisterial control over storm winds, fish, livestock, and plants, as well as over human beings of all tribes and nations, and God asks the recalcitrant prophet why he should “have pity” for an ephemeral plant but not a vast city of clueless human beings and their beasts” The message of Jonah, in spite of who Jonah is, is one of universal mercy. It is fitting that the book ends with a question.
The theologian Karl Rahner developed an idea called the supernatural existential. This idea says that every person has inside them a natural openness to hearing God’s call, a yearning and capacity for meaning that orients us towards God. In the song that I played for you earlier in the service I connect this capacity of everyone to orient themselves towards God to all of creation. I believe that all creatures are similarly attuned to God, and that there is a unified thread of love that connects all creatures to each other and to God. This orientation is not just about a mystical metaphysical connection. It is also about obeying God’s call; which is always a call to justice, a call to repentance, a call to mercy, a call to resistance.
And this brings us to the animals. The humans dress the animals up in sackcloth and are also expected to make sure the animals observe the fast. But the inclusion of the animals in these acts of repentance shows both that the Ninevites expect the animals matter and that they expect that this is also what God thinks. When we orient our world towards justice, when we hear God’s call, it is a message that we all can respond to in one way or another. And this message that is shot through our whole universe is also one that we can help each other respond to. For we all have a response. I encourage us all to listen for this music playing over our heads, to hear this call and to respond.