Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jonah 1-2) transports me to feverish and fervent prayer time, fishbelly style. Brother Jonah tries to get his sea legs as he sloshes around in the stenchy slop of digesting fishfood, wearing a seaweed headband and his feelings of despair on his sleeve. There’s not much hope for survival, save the wide mercies of God. While most people identify the story of Jonah with the fantastic fish story, even more miraculous to the original hearers would have been the mercy God showed to the Hebrews’ historic enemy city, Nineveh, which was located right across the Tigris River from the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq. This ancient Assyrian capitol, lambasted by the minor prophet Nahum, had terrorized the children of Israel to no end.
Jonah’s prayers dripped with irony, as he proclaimed that those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. He was thinking about Ninevite idolatry, not his own idols of ethnic superiority and pious prejudice toward the people God called him to preach to and bring into the family of faith. It was the Ninevite “heathern” who responded to God’s overture by letting go of their worthless idols and receiving the grace of God, while the culture-bound preacher stubbornly clung to his exclusive notions of who ought to be and who ought not to be in God’s household of faith. In fact, he was royally teed off when he saw that God was going to relent from sending calamity (which was exactly what he was wishing for). In a later prayer after the repentant Ninevites were celebrating their salvation experience, Jonah admitted to God that this is why he ran away from the call and jumped on the first ship to Tarshish in the first place, because he knew that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. God’s compassion for his despised enemy land made him so angry he sulked and prayed for God to take his life away, for it is better for me to die than to live.
How often are we prone to idolize our own conceptions of who’s good enough or orthodox enough or credal enough to be in the family? How often do we cling to these notions of puritanical prejudice in spite of all we know about the grace and mercy of God? Jesus underscored the power of the Jonah story when he prophesied that the Ninevites will wind up judging the generation of holier than thous. And if we find ourselves in the dark mess of a fish belly praying for God’s mercy, we shouldn’t be surprised if God commands the fish to spit us out right on the shore of the people we most despise. For, as the old hymnwriter put it, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea, there’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty. That’s worth wishing for. Fish, fish. . .
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Household of Faith.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.