“I pay attention to what I do so I’ll know what I really believe.”
–Sister Helen Prejean
If you only read chapter 3 of the book of Jonah, you’d learn quite a bit about the heart of Jonah’s God, but very little about the heart of the man God has called as his prophet. Though the story of Jonah is likely well known to many who sit in pews listening to sermons this third week of Epiphany, the Sunday School version of Jonah’s story is generally truncated, omitting a key part of this story–that even after outwardly obeying the command of God to go and prophesy to the Ninevites, Jonah remains bitter and cynical and alone. He is unable to receive the salvation of Ninevah as good news, despite the fact that his very life depends upon a God of second chances. Jonah’s “no” to God and God’s grace in this story makes this little book of Scripture a tragedy, ultimately. Through it all, God is always and everywhere showing Godself as who and what the Hebrew Scriptures have said God is: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). With closed hands and a closed heart, Jonah’s fate is left to readers’ imaginations.
It may not seem obvious to compare Jonah’s sustained “no” to God to the responsive “yes” of Simon, Andrew, James, and John in the gospel of Mark, but I am struck by the nimble freedom with which these first disciples respond to Jesus’ summons. Standing alongside Jonah’s intractability, these four fishermen seem downright reckless. Without romanticizing the discipleship of these men, knowing well that bumbles and betrayals to Jesus are yet to come, the story of Simon, Andrew, James, and John leaving their nets by the sea is one example of what it looks like to “repent and believe the good news.” Repentance is, after all, a reorientation of one’s life in the direction of the kingdom. Belief in the good news is made evident in a willingness to pour one’s life into this new kingdom movement.
Did Jonah think he was too good to go to a “shithole” like Ninevah? Did his “Israel first” doctrine prevent him from extending the grace of God to anyone that wasn’t “his people”? Was it a scarcity mentality that believed that if God’s grace were shared with the Ninevites that there wouldn’t be enough left for him? Had Jonah, with nary a mention of brother or friend, become an echo chamber for his worst biases and impulses? In contrast, was it humility or deep faith or community or all of the above that made the four fishermen’s “yes” to Jesus possible?
In the preface of his new devotional book, Gift and Task, Walter Bruggemann writes: “The gift-giving God whom we meet in Scripture is also the one who assigns a worthy task, who from the first act of creation and the first utterance at Sinai has issued commandments, who has summoned to discipleship, and who empowers us to glad, trustful obedience.” Knowing myself to be capable at times of the arrogance, protectionism, scarcity, and isolation of Jonah, causing me to reject the summons of the God whose grace is always surprising, indeed reckless, but never failing, I need the community called church and those brothers and sisters who speak assurance, courage, humility, and grace into my life in order to respond to this kingdom-proclaiming God. It is the constant reminder of Scripture, but particularly this week’s lessons, that the God of our salvation is up to something good and new. It is in our regular gathering at the Eucharist Table that we are reminded that we, along with all other creatures, are first gracious recipients of the abundant gifts of God. If we are willing (and sometimes when we’re not) that God will use us as instruments of God’s kingdom. Sent forth into the world, we are called and empowered to live out that belief in our lives with a courageous “yes.”