The short story of the book of Jonah was designed to upset a complaisant and ethnocentric (as we would say today) audience. Writing at a time that the Judeans were focused on preserving their identity and building a kind of wall between themselves and all “others,” the author of this remarkable book tells of a reluctant Israelite prophet commissioned by the God of Israel to preach repentance to the hated Ninevites--those ancient enemies, the Assyrians, who had conquered the kingdom of Israel long before the Babylonian captivity. Jonah tried to go in the opposite direction, westward, but through the mediation of a storm, some feisty sailors, and a huge fish with a benevolent digestive tract, Jonah winds up in Nineveh anyway. So, dragging his feet, he preaches doom, and—to his surprise (and chagrin)--the people (and even their livestock!) repent in sackcloth and ashes. Read in context, this book is a funny, Woody-Allen kind of piece. What am I supposed to make of it?
It makes me ask the embarrassing question: Are there any members of the human race that I place outside the mercy of God?
Do I habitually underestimate “the wideness of God’s mercy”?
Then when I read the passage from the Gospel of Luke, where
Jesus announced, about himself, that “something greater than
Jonah is here,” I hear the question: Do I allow Jesus to be
a prophet in my life? We tend to avoid thinking of Jesus as a prophet
because we know that Muslims call Jesus a prophet, and so that title
seems to downgrade him from Son of God. But in fact the the authors
of the Gospels have no trouble acknowledging Jesus as prophet—more
than a prophet, to be sure, but still clearly having the function
of prophet among his people. Biblically, that means he mediated the
word of God in a way that comforted the afflicted and afflicted the
comfortable. Since I must count myself among the comfortable, that
means that the words and works of Jesus will sometimes afflict—or
at least challenge—me. Right now, one of those prophetic words
is, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will
of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Since I am professionally
involved in saying ‘Lord, Lord’ a lot, this saying gives
me a good Lenten pause.
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