God Never Asks Our Premission

At the end of Jonah, all those who had been jeopardized were saved.  God saved the sailors from the storm, saved Jonah from the sea, and Nineveh from destruction—all praise be to God.

Except that’s not what Jonah did.  He did not praise God.  It displeased Jonah greatly and Jonah became angry.  Jonah remembered the words that had been recorded in the sacred memory of the Hebrew people—the words God spoke to Moses found in Exodus 34.  The complete creed-like statement is this, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”

Nahum the prophet who declared Nineveh’s destruction a little later quoted the very same passage from Exodus.  In fact, it is the most repeated creedal formula in the Old Testament being repeated in some form or another over a dozen times.  The respected Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann said that this is the closest thing the ancient have of a theological credo—a clear statement of their understanding of God.  Nahum, however, stressed the last part of the creed—the part that says that God will not acquit the guilty but will hold people accountable for their sins.  The later prophet saw in it the seeds of destruction.

Jonah said that the Hebrew’s statement of faith would be the Assyrians promise of salvation.  And it angered Jonah.  He said, “I knew this is what you’d do.  I knew they would repent.”  And I just want to stop there and say—that’s a really arrogant thing for a preacher to say.  Hidden in the subtext is the claim—if I go and I preach there will be revival.  Most of us expect an Awakening when we preach but usually it’s the awakening of people who have fallen asleep while we were preaching.  But Jonah testified and the sailors listened and with a few sentences they were converted to true and sacrificial followers of Yahweh.  And Jonah knew that if he preached to the people of Nineveh, they would repent and God would relent from punishing.

At the end of the story, we find Jonah camped on the East side of the city.  God caused a bush to grow up and provide Jonah with shade and Jonah was happy.  God caused the bush to die and Jonah was sad.  And this is how the story ends, “The the Lord said ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and it perished in a night.  And should I not 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 and from their left.”

Jonah does not move from hatred to love.  He moves from a willful insistence on his own way to an obedient acceptance of the nature of God.  His proclamation and his frustration all stem from the same source—that the nature of God as disclosed in the holy testimony of his people is that God is gracious even to people the prophet hates.  God had been gracious and chose to save.  He saved the sailors on the ship from the storm.  He saved the people of Nineveh from destruction.  He saved Jonah from the sea and then from the dessert.   He did not move from hate to love.  He moved instead from resistance to discernment.    And in the end this is the message of Jonah—it is God’s will to save whether we approve or not.  Jonah’s message  isn’t made for the Hallmark channel.  It Bluntly declares—God chooses to bless and forgive, get over it.  God is sovereign and will preserve people who we don’t think deserve it.  Deal with it.  You may not think they know their left from their right but God didn’t ask for your opinion.  God simply commands us to accept the patient forgiveness God offers and to proclaim it knowing that if we declare, people will believe.

Word Spreads Fast

In many way, Jonah 3 begins Act II. The call to Jonah is renewed or repeated (Jonah 3:1).  In contrast to Act I, this time Jonah goes as instructed.   The narrator of the story tells us that the city was great.  It was a “three days journey” across the city (Jonah 3:2). Three days is the number of days Jonah had been in the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17).

Jonah did not have to travel the full three days across the city.  Rather, the power of his proclamation is such that people respond immediately and word gets to the King in a short amount of time.  The people repent and the Lord relents from sending calamity their way.  This is not the first time God changed God’s mind.  Exodus 32:14 explains that while God had intended to destroy the Israelites for creating a Golden Calf and worshiping it, Moses interceded for the people and God changed God’s mind about the destruction.

The connection between the two stories goes deeper than the description of God’s redirection of wrath.  Both stories relate to idolatry.  In both stories the protagonist finds the people he’s called upon to save annoying.  In both stories, the repeated call for monotheism is the message. This is the focus of the first two chapters of Jonah.

The shift as we enter the third chapter (Act II) is the added message of violence.  The people repent not of their idolatry but of their aggression.  Two things should be stressed when we think about Jonah.  One, that the truth matters.  Jonah is about right belief in the one true God and the abandonment of idolatry.  Two, that this goes hand-in-hand with the ethical decision to give up aggression.  While the text never connects the two directly, the connection is there.  God desires both our commitment to truth and our dedication to peace.

So, I Wrote This Song From an Aquatic Digestive Track

Jonah slept in the hull of the ship.  The exhaustion from running from God had pushed him into a near comatose slumber.  While a storm raged, Jonah snored. God had called him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and call the people to repent.  To get to Nineveh Jonah would have needed to travel to the North and to the East of his hometown of Gath-Hepher in Galilee.  So, of course, Jonah traveled to the South and to the West reaching Joppa and then boarding a ship bound for a port as far west as anyone at that time could have imagined—to Tarshish—an otherwise unknown city in the direction of Spain.

God had sent Jonah to those who were decidedly not his people—to the Assyrians.  Over the course of 22 years, Assyria had tormented Israel.  The Assyrian empire had invaded Jonah’s home region of Galilee.  They killed, pillaged, and took captive people. It’s no wonder that Jonah went in the opposite direction.

Despite their terrible record, God would not let the prophet escape his call.  God sent the the storm that buffered the ship.  The sailors had no other option but to throw Jonah overboard in order to save themselves.  At the end of chapter 1, Jonah was swallowed by a large fish.  There’s a Psalm Jonah prayed while in the fish’s belly.

The Digestive Psalm

The first part of the Psalm is a summary of the whole Psalm.  The prophet cried and the Lord answered.  The situation, however, is not the belly of a fish but “Sheol.”  Sheol is the Old Testament’s word for the location of the dead.

The next part of the Psalm expands on that theme.  Jonah acknowledges that the Lord was responsible for his calamity and his rescue (Jonah 2:3-7).  Jonah declares that the turning point for him came as he remembered and prayed to the Lord.  There’s an interesting repetition of the Temple in verse 4 and in verse 7.  Interesting because nothing in the rest of the book relates to worship in a temple either in Samaria, Jerusalem or Shiloh.  Pieces of material that seem out of place in the story of Jonah suggest that this was a Psalm that existed before Jonah and that Jonah incorporated.

The key verse, I believe, that connects the song in Jonah 2 with the other chapters in this book is Jonah 2:8, “Those who worship vain idols forskae their true loyalty.”  In Jonah 1, the sailors went from worship gods to worshiping the Lord.  In Jonah 3 and 4, the plot pivots on the Ninevites abandonment of idolatry and commitment to the one true Lord.  We may not be aware today of the problems we face with idolatry.  The Lord expects to have the central place in our lives and does not wish to share that with anyone or anything.  When we depart from that message, our lives can feel like we are adrift and tossed about.  When we center our lives on our devotion to the one true Lord, we find our balance and our salvation.

A Funny Think Happened on the Way Away from God

The meaning of a story in the Bible comes through the way it is told as much as it does by the story itself.  The story itself might be thought of as the plot.  The first chapter of Jonah has a pretty straight forward plot.  God called Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy to them.  Jonah fled and went the opposite direction.  The ship Jonah was on experienced a terrible storm.  When the sailors discovered Jonah was the likely cause, they had no option but to throw him overboard in order to save themselves.  Jonah did not drown; he was swallowed by a big fish.  That’s the plot of the story.

The way the story is told–it’s narration–however shows that the first chapter isn’t as much about Jonah as it is about the sailors.  Notice that when the storm emerges, “each cried out to his god” (Jonah 1:5).  The captain reinforced this generic polytheism asking Jonah to pray to his god.  They superstitiously cast lots to figure out who is to blame and decide it’s Jonah.

That’s when Jonah explains that he is a worshiper of “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (NOTE:  Many of our translations will write LORD in all-caps to show that the Hebrew original text used the proper name for God.  Jonah had apparently told the sailors that he was fleeing the LORD’s presence.  The sailors were astonished that this god, the LORD, did not dwell in a single location.  He could follow his prophet out past the borders of his homeland and onto the sea.

Notice two other things as well.  Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, but the sailors try at first to avoid taking a man’s life.  They pray the LORD revealing ethical commitments to preserving life.  They say, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.  Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”  After the storm subsides, the sailors offered sacrifices and made vows to the LORD.  The way the story is told shows that the story is not so much about a prophet who won’t do what he’s told.  It’s about believers in gods become followers of the LORD.

The fish God sends to swallow Jonah is an answer the the converted sailors prayers that they not be guilty of taking a man’s life.  This is a key, I believe, to the over all message of Jonah.  The Lord desires to show God’s mercy to all humanity and the bring all humanity into a living, committed relationship specifically to the LORD.

Reading Jonah as Big People

The biblical story of Jonah captures a young imagination.  Jonah was a prophet sent by God to Nineveh.  He was sent to bring God’s word.  Jonah disobeyed and went the other way.  So, God had Jonah swallowed by a large fish until Jonah repented.  The fish spit Jonah onto shore. Jonah went to Nineveh.  He proclaimed God’s word. The people repented.  The city was saved.  Jonah hated it.

History and Jonah

The historical Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14.  He prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II which would have been during the early part of the 8th Century B.C.

A brief reminder: the Twelve Tribes of Israel were united by King David during the early part of the 10th Century B.C. This nation divided into two kingdoms after Solomon’s (David’s son) death.  The Northern Kingdom was Israel and the Southern Kingdom was Judah.  When reading historical literature in the Old Testament like 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles, the kings will be dated relative to each other—When King Such-and-Such reigned in Israel while King So-and-So ruled Judah.

The first King of Israel named Jeroboam came during the 10th Century.  He was militarily and politically effective but seems to have tolerated idolatry.  The second King Jeroboam like the one for whom he was named also seemed to be politically effective but morally problematic. Second Kings says that the historical Jonah went and prophesied to Jeroboam II instructing the King to reestablish the Northern border and promising longevity of Israel despite the sinfulness the King had allowed.  If the historical Jonah is the author of the book, the book could be written somewhere near the 8th Century.

Jonah as Story

There are some hints that the book was not written by the historical Jonah.  For example, the book itself does not identify the ruler of Nineveh by name though an historical treatise would have.  It did not provide dates for the events in terms of the reigns of kings in Israel or Judah the way other more clearly historical prophetic writings do.  More importantly, it does not correspond to any known history we have.  We have no record of Nineveh ever converting to the worship of the Lord nor of them giving up their agenda of violence and domination.  The city of Nineveh and the Kingdom of Assyria fell in the 7th Century—some hundred years after the historic Jonah lived.  It fell to an alliance of nations that collaborated to defeat the bullying Assyrian army.

Israel—Jonah’s nation—spent time exiled and subject to other nations—superpowers of that age.  Words that came from the influence of these other cultures pops up in the book of Jonah suggesting that it was written after the exile.

If Jonah is, as I believe it is, an imaginative story about theological possibilities, then it was written somewhere before the 2nd Century B. C. The deutero-canonical book The Wisdom of Ben Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) makes reference to the Twelve Prophets which is another way of describing the twelve minor prophets in the Protestant Canon—the books from Hosea through Malachi.  Yet, I think it’s best to think less about the historical character and more about the theology that emerges from the book.    In the face of the forces of hate, Jonah imagines that the world could be different.  It imagines that people could be persuaded to turn from wickedness through the proclamation of God’s message.  Nineveh did not convert—but it could have had someone been willing to preach the message of repentance to them.

Maybe you’ve heard or seen the story of Jonah re-enacted in a video or through a youth or children’s church play or musical.  I encourage you to re-read the story of Jonah today.   What you’ll see is a story that may be more complex than the one we were told as children. In later blog posts, I will look at each chapter of Jonah individually.  For now, it would be good to get a sense of the whole book through a quick reading of the four chapters that comprise it.

Jonah and History

Matthew and James 

 A couple of passages in the final chapter of James connect to verses in Matthew. James 5:12 says, “Let your, ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No,’ no or you will be condemned.” In Matthew 5:37Jesus said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The book of James itself concludes with a call to help someone back from sin saying, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).  It does not share strong verbal connections to Matthew but contains the same spirit as Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”   

 There are similar connections between James and Matthew around anger (James 1:19 compared to Matthew 5:22), Mercy (James 2:12-13 and Matthew 5:7 and Matthew 18—the parable of the unmerciful servant), and judging (James 4:12 compared to Matthew 7:1-7). James 4:1, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” In Matthew 15:19 Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery [two of the sins James mentions repeatedly], sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” James 3:18 says, “Peacemakers sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” And we are familiar with the beatitude in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” James 2:8 and Matthew 22:39 both quote Leviticus 19:18 that says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Only three New Testament books make reference to Rahab one is James (2:25) and the other is Matthew (1:5). In an academic sense, we would need stronger verbal connections between Matthew and James to say that they emerge out of the same community. Compare the Gospel of John to the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John and you’ll see what I mean. Nonetheless, the connection of themes and teachings tie James resonate strongly with Jesus’s teaching ministry recorded in Matthew.

 Jesus’s actual teachings do not get the attention the need. James is entirely devoted to instructions on living the ethical life. He does not make reference to the events of Jesus’s life—incarnation, healings, death, burial and resurrection. The book is a companion to the Sermon on the Mounty (Matthew 5-7). Matthew is also similarly attentive to the teachings of Jesus. Sadly, we have no holiday for Jesus’s teaching. We celebrate his birth at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Holy Week. Some people may acknowledge his dedication day, visit by the Magi, baptism and ascension. But to my knowledge, there’s not a single day on the church calendar devoted to Jesus teaching. Yet, these are not just a central part of the meaning of Christ’s life. The teachings are the aspect of Jesus that got him crucified. As James reveals, the wisdom contained within the teachings of Jesus do not belong to this world. And the world will find the most violent means to reject them.

Worldliness 

There’s a preacher joke I stole from Stan Hagadone, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two categories and those who don’t.” The New Testament book of James is one that divides into two categories. Consider the pairs James sets up: Hearers of the word/doers of the word (1:19-25); faith with works/faith without works (2:14-26); rich and poor; alive/dead. All of this merges at James 4:4 where worldly and godly collide.   
James 4:4–“Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God”–ties together at least two other places where being worldly has been condemned. James 1:27–keeping oneself unstained by the world is key to true religion. James 3:15–wisdom defined by selfish ambition, bitterness, arrogance and deceit is worldly.

Worldly is one of those terms that needs definition. Without trying to understand what James means by the word we will likely supply it with those qualities we find most problematic. Here’s my short-list of things I believe James places in the worldly category.

James tends to use the strongest language possible in drawing the line between this attitude and these behaviors. I, on the other hand, tend to try to justify. Everyone is a little judgmental sometimes; it’s natural to want wealth; sometimes we use people by accident. I tend to give off the impression that I think people can basically do what they want as long as they put on the costume of being nice when they do it. We need James’ strong language to shake us free from our acquiescence to sin.

I encourage you to read James 4 today and allow its strong language to confront you.  

You Kiss Your God With That Mouth?

Read James 3

Sometimes when a person uses profaneity or crude talk, someone else will try to make them feel guilty saying, “you kiss your mother with that mouth?”  The capacity of our speech–our mouths–to both bless and curse is the reflection of James 3.  

The chapter begins with the warning that not many should seek to be known for their wise teaching because of the greater judgment teachers receive.  It’s not clear whether this is God’s judgment or people’s or both.  I’ll vote for both.  James compares our words to a rudder of a ship or the bit in the mouth of a large animal.  If we can control what we say, we can control the rest of our moral actions.  The chapter continues with a series of proverb-like statements concerning our speech.  The key to the chapter–and one of the unifying themes of the book–comes in James 3:9.  “With our tongues we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”  

God prohibited the use of idols in worship in the law (Exodus 20:1-20).  We ought not seek to make images of God since God God’s self has made that which bears God’s image.  People are made in the image of God–Genesis 1:26.  As a result, we can honor God best by showing respect to people.  This is similar to the teaching that true religion is lived out in acts of compassion for widows and orphans (1:27).  And to the warning that within the context of worship, showing partiality to the rich against the poor should not be tolerated (James 2:1-13).  Faithfulness to God cannot be separated from responsibility toward people.  

As you go through your day today, consider how you might look for the image of God imprinted on the lives of each person you meet.  Consider as you do how your own expectation that you will see God’s image in them affects their response to you.  Find ways to reflect to them in your speech what you see in them that reflects God’s image to you.  At the end of the day, consider how you might kiss the Lord with the lips you have used this day to honor God by respecting and affirming people.  

The Rich People

“Rich people aren’t all bad,” she said to me one day.  She said it with an earnest spirit and I knew what she meant.  She had grown up in a religiously rigid home and she had married into money.  She knew what the Bible said and what the Bible said about rich people. James 2:1-7 contains some difficult teachings about the wealthy.  She was a kind, generous woman with a kind, generous husband.  I wanted to reassure her somehow that the Bible didn’t mean all those things it said about people like her, but  I believe we should do our best to let the Bible speak on its own terms and not try to side-step the strength of its message.  Let scripture be scripture and if we’re going to disagree with scripture, let it be an honest disagreement.  

By James’s standards most of us would be considered wealthy.  We have access to technology James could not have imagined, running water, indoor plumbing, sufficient food and opportunities for economic advancement. We’re wealthy. We have a sense that we could change the outcome of our lives through effort or through different choices.  I want to suggest that James thinks differently about those he identified as “the rich.”  The “rich” in our text are not defined merely by income or wealth but also by their actions.  Certainly not every person of means I know does these things.  So, let’s be clear that James is not just talking about how much money a person has but also how they carry themselves 

  • They flaunt their wealth (James 2:2)
  • They accept preferential treatment (James 2:3)
  • They oppress those who are poorer (James 2: 6)
  • They blaspheme the name of the Lord (James 2:7)

Some of the things James believes the church should do–visiting the sick, anointing with oil, caring for the poor–require wealth.  So, no, the wealthy aren’t all bad.  But when anyone does the things described here–flaunting wealth, accepting favoritism, oppression and blasphemy–they are on the wrong side of God’s will.  

Of course, James wasn’t writing to change the behavior of the rich.  He was writing to change the behavior of the church.  They were the ones who had erred–and we make the same error all the time–by elevating people whose character is not worthy of elevation simply because they have money.  OR we neglect and make subordinate those who are poor simply because they lack financial wealth.  James does not say it this way, but I will: when we show this kind of favoritism, we cheer the crucifiers and deny the Crucified–not a place any of us want to be. 

The Perfect Gift

In the football movie Rudy there’s a scene where Rudy decides to talk to a local priest.  In response to some question, the priest says, “Son, after 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two incontrovertible facts: there is a God and I’m not Him.”  We often conduct our reflections on God by comparing God to ourselves.  Surely God thinks about things the way I do and God feels emotionally the way I do.  It’s a natural tendency.  In James 1:17, James does the opposite.  He declares something about God that he knows is not necessarily true about us. 

All that is good and every good act of generosity “comes down from the Father of light, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”  James has already said we are different from a God of constancy.  People face trials which some people endure but other people do no (James 1:2-4, 12).   James 1:6-8 points to our capacity to doubt in the midst of prayer and describes such pray-ers as “tossed about” like a small boat in choppy waters, “double-minded and unstable.”  The fortunes of the rich and the poor both change in time (James 1:9-11).  We face temptations and these temptations, when people submit to them, lead to lives guided by passions and ultimately walk a path that leads to death (James 1:13-15).  If there’s a unifying theme in the first chapter of James, it is this theme of God’s steadfastness contrasted with the vacillating nature of human life.  

God is not just constant.  God is constantly good.  James 1:17 begins with a phrase that’s translated in different ways.  In Greek the subject(s) of th sentence involve two related terms, dosis and dorema.   Dosis means act of giving a gift and dorema means a gift or present itself.  Translators must decide if these words both refer to the things God gives to us or if God is also the source of human generosity.  The New International Version and the New Living Translation both translate the words as essentially relating to the same thing–the gifts God gives us.  The New International Version says, “Every good and perfect gift.”  The New Living Translation says, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift.”  Other translations point to God as the source of  good gifts and generous acts of giving.  The New Revised Standard Version says, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift.”  The New Century Version tranlates it, “Every good action and every perfect gift.”  The New American Standard Bible translates it, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift.”  Based on context, I think we should understand it as both what God gives and what we give.  The second set rings truer to me.  

The nature of God’s constancy is God’s constancy in giving.  This is what it means for us to endure under trials and resist temptations.  The temptation is to be selfish.  The trials may push us to look out for self-interest alone.  Consistent generosity in the face of what might otherwise push toward selfishness is the characteristic that makes us most godly.  Pure religion, after all, involves caring for “widows and orphans in their distress” (James 1:27).  While it is true that there is a God and that none of us is Him, scripture constantly points us to God’s character to be our example and our standard.