Here’s how I like to think of Jonah’s story. This is Homer’s Odyssey of an epic adventure if it was written by Woody Allen, played by Billy Crystal or John Stewart. This should be the next big epic Bible movie, we’ve had Russell Crowe as Noah and Moses played by Batman, so why not Billy Crystal as Jonah. Imagine the scene when Morgan Freeman (God, of course) tells Jonah to go prophecy to Nineveh and tell them they are doomed: “Nineveh? No! Are you crazy, there are bad people there. They will put and apple in my mouth and slowly roast me. It will be worse than going to a bar mitzvah on a blind date. No, I’m getting on the ferry and going far away from here, or at least to Staten Island.” You can imagine the scene where the storm hits and the boat is being tossed in the waves, and Billy Crystal saying, “Its my fault. I never listen. Toss me overboard and save yourselves. With my luck I won’t even drown, I’ll get swallowed by a whale and spit up at Battery Park and have to go to Nineveh anyway.” Jonah should be read as satire in service of theology, more like Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker or The Onion. I love the line that says even the animals are to be dressed in sack cloth to repent.
Typically Jonah is berated for his lack of faith or courage, but it is more helpful to identify with him for a moment. He was given a mission impossible. Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of its day. It was a city of conquerors, with a strong commercial base, superior technology and a powerful war machine. Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed thorough as a way station to somewhere else, kind of like I-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get even less respect than Ambassador of Baluchistan would get in Washington, DC. Imagine yourself suddenly being sent to the Sudan where the government is perpetuating a genocide against Christians in the southern area. God tells you to march through the hot desert and tell their leaders to repent, to stop the genocide, to hold democratic elections and respect everyone’s civil rights. Do you think you would get their leadership to dress up in sack cloth and ashes? For that matter, imagine going to Washington, DC and demanding that elected officials stop the legalized bribery of our campaign finance system. Do you think you could bring both houses of Congress to wear sack cloth and ashes? See what I mean? Jonah had a mission impossible.
Jonah may be one of our patron saints. The world conspires to make Jonahs out of all of us. The world beats us down and tells us that you can’t change the big picture, so just fall in line and make the best living that you can for yourself and your family. Our values may tell us we need to head East to Nineveh, but we turn around and walk west and get on the boat with Jonah, because it is just too hard. We spend some of our precious time in the belly of the whale, out of touch with our calling, our sense of meaning and purpose.
Several years ago Michael Lerner wrote a book called “The Politics of Meaning.” Lerner said that to often we give up on our deepest held values of compassion, caring and community because they do not seem practical in the real world. Instead, an ethos of selfishness and materialism prevails by default. These are the values that we settle for when our deeper values seem out of reach. We may not have meaningful work or chances to make a difference, but materialism tells us that we can at least “Do the Dew” and drive a comfortable car. We may not be able to bring about racial reconciliation or even have the kind of relationships we want, but individualism tells us that we can pursue our own happiness and carve out our own little niche for peace of mind. Ironically, these attitudes give us less freedom and power. Selfishness and materialism erode community and make it less possible to live the life we want. Jonah’s way seems easier at first, but in the end we will get thrown overboard and end up in the belly of the whale.
In Mark’s Gospel, we read the story of how the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, are called by Jesus to be disciples. While it takes three chapters for Jonah to get to Nineveh, in a remarkable 4 verses, these fishermen leave their nets, their security, and their families to follow Jesus. I know that I would want at least 48 hours to think through me decision, to weigh the consequences, to think about the family business and the implications of the career move. Of course, by the time I had done all that, Jesus would have moved on to the next town. The author tells us nothing of their inner deliberations, whether the fishing was good or bad, if they were religious people or not, if they got along with their father or had a sense of wanderlust. Mark merely says, “And immediately, they followed him.” This connecting phrase, “and immediately,” is the most common phrase in Mark’s Gospel, occurring 33 times in only 16 chapters. (By the way, this phrase never occurs in Jonah!)
This kind of immediacy was captured in a TV show I used to watch called “Early Edition.” The basic concept of the show is that an average guy with a good heart and modest prospects receives and early edition of the Chicago Sun Times every morning that tells not the news of yesterday, but what is actually going to happen today, unless he does something to change the future. He spends his day trying to avert various disasters and when he is successful, the news in the paper actually changes. He has two friends that are alter egos, one who urges him on, and the other is more like Jonah, counseling him to let some things go because there are some things you just can’t change.
In one episode, the hero reads that an airline will explode and kill 150 people at O’Hare Airport unless he does something to stop it. He heads out, but the traffic is completely tied up in downtown Chicago and the subway trains are running late. He has only 30 minutes to take-off. As he waits for the train he reads the paper and sees a story about a six-year-old girl who was hit by a car. She dies because the hospital thought she had minor injuries and failed to examine her properly. Just then he sees the little girl going by on her bicycle. He has to make a split-second decision. There are 150 people about to die on the airline, but he may not get there, while the little girl is just down the street.
He runs after the little girl and reaches her moments after she is struck by a car. He scoops her up and races her on foot to the hospital. At the hospital, nobody believes she is badly hurt, and when he insists they examine her, they tell him to wait in line. All his persistence gets him is an escort from the building by security. So he sneaks in and finally pressures a doctor into examining her. The doctor finds the problem and saves the girls life. The twist in the plot comes in the end with two notes of providence. As the hero slumps in the hospital waiting room and rests, the doctor comes in to see him after the girl’s surgery. The doctor apologizes and admits that he has been jaded, forgetting the human dimension of his work. He says, “You saved more than that little girl’s life today. You may have just saved mine as well.” Then the little girl’s parents come to see her and her father is wearing a pilot uniform. He turns out to be the pilot of the airliner that would have exploded, but was called off the runway because his daughter was struck by a car. It turned out to be a two-for-one rescue!
I miss the show “Early Edition” and its wrestling with the dilemmas of what our role is in other peoples’ lives. How would we act differently if we knew the potential difference our lives make to others? In our cynicism, it is easy to forget that divine providence may work through us, that God brings about the good by weaving together our daily decisions. Our non-decisions may cause the fabric to unravel until God can find someone who can still hear and act in faith, hearing the call “and immediately” following it.
The immediacy of Mark’s Gospel is contained in the simple message Jesus delivers in Mark 1:14, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus does not spend a lot of time analyzing the big picture. His program is not very detailed. He didn’t write a two-volume manifesto about how the world works He is more intent on telling us God’s picture of the world. God is near, God’s power is at work, hear this good news and follow me. Do you sometimes wonder if all our social analysis of problems, our therapies and our self-improvement tapes are just ways of protecting ourselves from the simple, life-changing power of the call of Christ? “Love your neighbor as yourself. Feed the hungry, house the homeless and you have done it to me. Abide in my love and I will abide in you. You are the light of the world, so let your light shine before all that they may see the glory of God. The reign of God is among you, within you. If you have faith, the mountain shall be moved for you.”
How could the disciples not follow him? As Peter said, “O Master, now that we have seen you, where else can we go?” How could we not also follow?