Epiphany 3

This morning, we have heard a passage from the book of Jonah.

The story of an angry, angry man.

You probably know the story but if you don’t, I invite you to open your Bible this afternoon and read it. It’s a short read, ten to fifteen minutes and it’s funny, satirical.

It’s the story of a prophet, but not your usual prophet. It’s the story of a prophet who desperately tries to escape God’s call.

God calls Jonah to go and preach repentance to Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of Israel. And Jonah refuses to do it, because for him the people of Nineveh are such bad people, they aren’t worth being forgiven. Jonah is very angry – angry at the people of Nineveh but mostly angry at God who wants to give them a second chance by warning them of the calamity that is to come. To escape from God’s call, Jonah gets on a ship headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh. But God does not let go. To stop Jonah, God sends a huge storm on the sea, the sailors throw Jonah overboard and he ends up in the stomach of a whale. After three days, the whale vomits Jonah on the shore close to the city, and – as of our passage today – God asks him again to go there and preach. Jonah finally obeys and the people of Nineveh repent, but in the last chapter of the book we learn how shocked and unhappy Jonah is that the people of Nineveh have been forgiven by God – and God has to teach Jonah again how all people are precious to him and deserve a second chance.

What is interesting is that we don’t know if in the end Jonah finally gets it or not – if he still remains angry or if he is able to change his mind about the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy. All along and until the last line, the story keeps us wondering:

Will Jonah finally answer God’s call? Will Jonah finally obey God’s commandment?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as the people of Nineveh changed their minds about God, turned from their evil ways?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as God changed of mind and did not bring a calamity on them?

And so, in the end, we realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but it’s also, and mainly, the story of the conversion of Jonah.

We realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but the story of the conversion of Jonah.

It’s hard to change our minds, isn’t it? Especially about people. When we don’t like them, we don’t like them – and sometimes for good reasons. The Assyrians were truly the enemies of the Israelite. And it was assumed for the people of Israel that God was one their side, that they had God’s favor and that God hated their enemies as much as they did.

It’s easy to believe that God is on our side, isn’t it? That our God is the true God who agrees with everything that we do and everything that we believe in. In this country, a lot of people claim to have God on their side and struggle a lot to see the good in others, to see how God could be with them or how they can call themselves “Christians”.

Maybe that’s a reason why the story of Jonah is worth reading today, because the story is not here to teach us who is wrong or who is right and who has access to God and who is denied access. The story is here to tell us that God has a claim on all people. I am not sure God claims that the people of Nineveh are good people. That’s actually the other way around: The story tells us that God plans to punish them to put an end to their evil ways. But first, God wants to give them a warning and a chance to come back. What we learn is that the people of Nineveh may not be good people, but you see, they are people. They may not be good people, but they are people. And God has mercy on them. Actually, the book of Jonah mentions that God also has mercy on animals and even on trees.

They may not be good people but they still are people – and God longs for Jonah to understand things this way, and we understand quickly that it’s not only the people of Nineveh who need to repent of the evil they do, it’s also, and mainly, Jonah, who needs to repent from his stubbornness, his judgmental and unforgiving ways. Throughout the story, we keep wondering: Will Jonah change his mind? But more deeply, the question is: Will Jonah change his heart?

Will Jonah change his heart? Because it’s mostly about that isn’t it? Jonah has no heart for the people. He does not feel sorry for them, he isn’t concerned, he isn’t touched, they are not his problem. It’s easy to think isn’t it that people aren’t our problem, or that they are beyond redemption? But God is concerned with all people, and even animals and even plants and trees.

And so the story is the story about God trying to break through Jonah’s carapace, God trying to break through Jonah’s hardness of heart. In the end, we still don’t know what will happen. Will Jonah open his heart to compassion or will he die bitter, resentful and angry? There is only so much God can do, only so much God can ask, only so much God can explain.

It’s up to Jonah to live up to his calling and to accept – or not – the change God wants to bring in him.

The Gospel today is also about God calling people, as Jesus calls his disciples on the sea shore of Galilee. We may have gotten used to this story, that Jesus called fishermen, but it was an extraordinary thing to do at the time. Rabbis and teachers would wait for their students to apply to their schools, and check if they were worthy of their teaching before receiving them as their disciples. But throughout the Gospel, Jesus goes to the people and call them all, good and bad, religious or not.

Still today all are called but it’s also up to us to live up to our calling. God wants to give us a new heart, but as with Jonah, there is only so much God can do. God can explain again and again, but in the end, compassion cannot be demonstrated, cannot be explained, you have to let yourself feel it in your heart. The story of God trying to convince Jonah of having compassion on the Ninevites reminds me of those words by Dr Fauci addressing the Nation, when he said: I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. I think that sometimes God does not know how to explain to us that we should care about one another and be compassionate if, like Jonah, we decide we won’t listen.

And so, we don’t know how the story of Jonah will end, but what we are asked today is maybe to think about the end of our own story. Will we care for people and have compassion on them – not because they’re good or even innocent people, but because they are people too, and they are still people whatever they end up saying or doing, and God cares for them too? It’s not about forgoing our desire for justice, but the question is: How do we desire justice to happen? Do we want to punish people, to make them pay, to have our revenge on our enemies, or do we desire that justice will lead them to change and to come back to better ways – and do we ourselves accept to change and be reconciled in the process?

That’s the question God is asking Jonah and still asks each one of us today. And we know how hard it is. Prophets, like Christians, can be hard-hearted.

The good news for us is that as Jesus calls his disciples in our Gospel today, he asks them to follow – he does not ask them to have it all figured out. They are who they are, and we know that if they jump right away out of their boats, excited by the adventure, it’s going to be along journey for them to understand who Jesus is. We know how difficult it will be for them to change, to repent, to let their hearts be touched by Jesus’s message and Jesus’s compassion on all people: Foreigners, Roman centurions, tax collectors, rude women. Yes, indeed, it will be very difficult for the disciples to let their hearts be transformed. We know how difficult it was for Simon Peter who will let Jesus down when he realizes Jesus is not a conquering Messiah. We know how hard it will be for James and John, who will ask Jesus to be the among the greatest in the Kingdom. Mark’s Gospel is the Gospel of the disciples who don’t get it – but they learn and they keep on learning. And Jesus will model their hearts after his own just because they are open to Jesus’ teaching.

So today, let us ask Jesus also to model for us heart worthy of our calling, let us allow God to change us, and heal us. That our desire to bring justice in our common world and in our own worlds may not be cut off from a profound desire for understanding, healing and reconciliation. As with the first disciples, it may take the time it may take, but we don’t have to have it all figured out, we just have to be on our way.

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