Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
1st Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Nineveh was the ISIS stronghold of its time. Known for torturing people, beheadings, and using fear as a control tactic. It was no wonder that Jonah didn’t want to go there. Our reading today, of course, picks up as Jonah is sitting on the shoreline covered in fish saliva and smelling like death. Only when he has no choice does he go to Nineveh and preach the most pathetic sermon of all, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” First of all, there is no sense of urgency. 40 days means they’ve got plenty of time. 40 days and 40 nights of rain on Noah’s ark, 40 days of fasting in the wilderness for Jesus, 40 years wandering in the wilderness for the Israelites. 40 means too many to count. I also wonder sometimes how he said it. He was not happy to be there, so did he mumble it? Did he shout it with false enthusiasm? Did he pout the whole way?
I like to compare and contrast this story with another one in the Old Testament in which Abraham pleads with God to change God’s mind about the calamity that he has threatened against the town of Sodom for using violence and fear to control people. Abraham responds to God’s threat by asking if 50 righteous people are found in the city will God spare the city. God says God will. How about 45? How about 40? How about 30? How about 5? And God shows a willingness to change God’s mind. In this story in Jonah, we are supposed to be reminded of this story of the destruction of Sodom because the same word is used, “overthrown.” But instead of pleading for the people, Jonah runs the other way, preaches a pathetic sermon, and then gets mad when God lets the Ninevites off the hook. A further contrast between the two stories is that in Sodom, not even 5 righteous people can be found. In Nineveh, every last person repents, believes, puts on sackcloth and fasts, including the king, including even the animals. The people of Nineveh turn out to be more faithful even than Jonah himself, who continues to pout and be angry with God for sparing the people. Jonah seems to believe that for God to be God, God must keep God’s word. God promised to destroy the people. Who would God be if he didn’t? But what Jonah didn’t realize is that God is love, not rules. The rules, the threats, lead to a change in the Ninevites, a more loving world, and that is the goal, not destruction or calamity.
People have different views of calamity. Some take comfort in believing that God causes it, controls it. Sometimes the Old Testament, these ancient stories of Isreal’s journey with God, seems to support that point of view. But I don’t take any comfort in that at all. I cannot believe that God would make hillsides slide and dump thousands of refugees into the sea, destroy people with addiction or disease or hunger or abuse. In fact Jesus came to overturn systems that destroy and damage. So the only calamity is to those who are benefitting from the system of abuse of power, whose comforts depend on the suffering of others.
God is coming into the world to change this world from one that crushes little people and grinds them down, to one that is loving and life-giving. I don’t think God does that so much through earthquakes, although those kind of natural disasters can bring out the best in people who come to each other’s aid, and grow closer in community as they support one another. The main way that God tries to change us is through relationship.
That’s the reason Jonah had to go to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites. They were simply a city worthy of destruction, a group to be wiped out, entertainment for Jonah as they cried out in their much-deserved misery. But to God, they were children worthy of a second chance. God wanted Jonah to see what God saw. So God made Jonah walk in the midst of the city, to see the children, to smell the food, to hear the conversations, to see the Ninevites as people, like God saw them. But God loved the Ninevites too much to let them keep trampling all over God’s beloved little people. So God gave Jonah a message, a warning, a chance to change. Jonah was to go to the people of Nineveh and speak truth to power. He was to tell them of the pain they were causing others. In addition, in Jonah, the Ninevites must have seen the people of Israel for the first time. Here comes this pathetic, puke-smelling Israelite, taking his time, risking his life to bring a message to them, to help them. Here are two people looking at each other face to face for the first time. The surprising thing is that the supposed believer, Jonah, cannot see the humanity of the Ninevites, whereas the Ninevites, who are Gentiles thought to be far from God, see a brother, and recognize God.
We, too, have 40 days to repent, a long time. We have lost our sense of urgency since the Messiah has not fully returned as promised. God has been endlessly patient, merciful, compassionate, as we crush people we’ve never met in order to be able to buy cheap goods, and we torture and kill them with asthma, and our trash, our poisons so that we can have the convenience of driving whenever we feel like it, or having packaged fast-food. In this 40 days, we are the Ninevites, invited to relationship. We are invited to truly see them those we have hurt as human, to let their stories penetrate our armor, to let their pain change us.
And we are the Israelites, Jonah, because we’ve been hurt by this system, as well. We are invited to speak the truth of the ways we are tortured and crushed in this system of death. We are invited to speak truth to power, to tell the story of our pain, to make ourselves heard, cry out against the city.
This is why Jesus came among us. God wanted to look us in the eye, get at eye-level with us, and show us in Jesus the eyes of every other person, the human of each one, and maybe not even just human eyes, but to make us look with compassion upon each creature and see there another one of God’s good Creation with value and pain and joy and hope. God wanted to hear our story, live our story, live our pain. And God wanted us to know the pain that God feels whenever one of the little ones is hurting.
This Godly way of relating to one another, and looking one another in the eye, is not an easy path. For us, as for the first disciples, it will mean denial, betrayal, misunderstanding, crucifixion, death, change. There is no question that the mention of John the Baptist’s arrest at the beginning of this Gospel reading is reminding us of the cost of this journey. The first disciples, somehow let go of what little power they had, their livelihood, to participate in a new reign. They let go of their usual way of being to live the way described in 1 Corinthians—those who had wives began to live as though they had none, and those who mourned as if they were not in mourning. They let go of their jobs and family and economic security, to lay hold of another kind of security. We have to wonder how to live in these in-between times, when God promises a new reality, but we are still very much living in this world. What do we let go of? What do we take up? How do we follow?
First of all, are we even called? I must affirm, yes! That disquiet in your mind, in your heart that tells you that the pain and suffering in this world is wrong comes from God. It is your call to follow. In baptism, we make that call public as well as our intention to answer that call as a community together. We state then our intention to drown the old self and let go of what stands against the life and love of God, and to look each other in the eye and look for the humanity, the value in each person, to enter into relationship, to speak the truth, and to listen to the truth. To answer Jesus’ call to follow is to stand against the powers that divide us. To see the humanity in another person. To walk with them in calamity.
Many of us read the story of Jesus calling the first Disciples as an evangelism reading. Fishing for people is inviting them to church. However, this is probably more about overturning the order of power and privilege. These fish hooks are for ensnaring all who rich and powerful and bringing them to judgment. Other scriptures point to this including this one from Jeremiah 16, in which I noticed also God asks Jeremiah to live very much like this 1 Corinthians reading without getting married or having children, etc. “then you shall say to them: It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; 12 and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me. 16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; 17 For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.” And from Amos 4: 1 "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, "Bring something to drink!" 2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks."
The fishing is to ensnare in judgment all who have disobeyed God, especially the rich and powerful, especially us. We’re going to face the bitter truth of all that we’ve done and the pain we’ve caused. Thankfully, God uses judgment to show us all a truth about ourselves that we had been struggling with, and now that it is out in the open, we can lift our eyes and look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters we’ve hurt and see them as human, and we can lift our eyes and look into the eyes of Jesus our brother and see love there, not so we can go back to hurting people, but so that we can live in newness of life, that we can live in a way that respects the life and dignity of others, so that God can transform this world, change us, and bring abundant life to all.