Reflection for Sunday 24th January

Sunday 24th January 2021

Reflection 30 – Protest

Lectionary Passage Jonah 3 vv 1 – 10

Jonah and the giant fish in the Jami’ al-tawarikh (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Three apparently disparate introductory paragraphs that I want to try to weave together and link to our Lectionary passage from the Book of Jonah.

Part of the international background to my days as a student was the long running war in Vietnam and the growing Civil Rights movement in the United States.  While Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were faced with the complexities of an impossible war in South East Asia, figures like Martin Luther King faced their own struggle for social justice closer to home in places like Alabama.  Voices were raised in protest on both fronts.  The hard-hitting eloquence of protest was expressed in song.  It was the era of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.  Songs like ‘We shall overcome; Where have all the Flowers gone? If I had a Hammer; Blowin’ in the wind and The Times They Are a-changin’ expressed just some of the protest that surfaced at that time.

I was outraged in the week!  In an interview on T V News, a nurse – exhausted by long shifts in the most trying of circumstances and on her way into an overstretched hospital, told of how she had run the gauntlet of a band of people blockading the entrance and who were insistent that the pandemic is a hoax.  It makes me want to take them by the scruff of their necks and march them into a Covid ward and challenge them with the truth.  Sadly, we live in an era of fake news.  I was glad to hear President Biden make his commitment to the truth in his inaugural address to the World.  Questions about truth are not new.  In John’s Gospel, true to form in John – with his emphasis on deep conversations, we have a fairly detailed record of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate.  At the end, Pilate asks the question ‘And what is Truth?’ John 18 v 38.  It’s still a question for today!

The preferred teaching method of Jesus was in parables – especially when working with the crowds. Particularly the first three gospels are cram-full of the stories that Jesus told.  Jesus took every-day, familiar situations and used them to convey what he wanted people to hear.  A farmer sowing grain in his field, a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep, a traveller on the dangerous bandit-ridden road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Real life, fact-based situations that we accept as parables and look beyond to discover the truth that they convey.  But they are parables.  Jesus wasn’t the first to use parables and the New Testament isn’t the only place where we can find them.  Read Nathan’s stinging rebuke of King David over his affair with Bathsheba contained in a parable –            2 Samuel 12 vv 1 – 7.

I recognise, of course, that different people have different approaches to the Bible and its truth.  The last thing that I want to do is to undermine another person’s faith.   For what it is worth, I see the Book of Jonah as a parable.  A parable of protest.

As a parable, I don’t need to enter into speculation about the fish – it is a fish in the text and not a whale, or about even the possibility of a person surviving three days in its belly.  Accepting it as a parable allows me to search for its truth as well as an understanding of the reason behind the inclusion of this rather strange story among the writings of the Prophets and in the Old Testament as a whole.

Some background.  It was President Ronald Reagan who used the phrase about ‘evil empires.’  To the Jews of the Old Testament, in their experience evil empires referred to the Assyrians and the Babylonians, with their respective capital cities Nineveh and Babylon.  The Assyrian Empire was the dominant force in world politics and power in the eighth century BC.  Nineveh would have been both the last place that a Jew would have chosen to go to and the last place where a ‘missionary’ would expect a result from his preaching. Its bad reputation lasted long after its fall.   But the evidence of scholarship is that the Book of Jonah was written long after the fall of Nineveh and the Assyrians.  Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians came and went.  After the Babylonians the Persians under Cyrus had a much more enlightened and benevolent attitude.  The Jews were allowed to return home after a fifty-year period in exile.

The Book of Jonah is very short – only four quite brief chapters – and it is worth reading as a whole.  The story of the book is very familiar.  Jonah is called by God to take a strong warning to the people of Nineveh. Instead of obeying, Jonah goes to Joppa and boards a ship going in the opposite direction.  When overtaken by a violent storm, the sailors cast lots to determine the person causing the danger; the lot falls on Jonah and, after attempts to get out of the situation, the sailors throw Jonah into the sea where he is swallowed by a large fish.  In the belly of the fish, he prays to God for help; the fish spits him out and he starts again by going to Nineveh and, against the odds, the people (including the King) hear and repent. God’s change of mind about punishing Nineveh makes Jonah angry and petulant and God has to teach him the lessons of His love and concern for all people.

Scholars point to several factors that make it much more likely that the Book of Jonah comes from a much later period than the eighth century BC. After their return from exile in Babylon following the new beginning that the Persians under Cyrus allowed towards the end of the fifth century BC, there was a period of rebuilding – homes and livelihoods, national buildings like the Jerusalem Temple and nationhood.  But it stalled – which is where Ezra and Nehemiah come in with the details of work-people and building works and the instructions for their religious and national life that are contained in the books that carry their names.  But there was a sense in which they pulled up the drawbridge.  The nation became insular, isolated and introspective. There was a purging of outside influences.  Just one example is that marriage to non-Jewish women was forbidden.

Jonah is a protest.  The author of Jonah really believed that the Jews, as God’s chosen people, held a divine responsibility to be light for the world with a mission to draw people – all people, to the Living God.  All of that was going by the board.  Jonah is the parable told to convince people of the mercy of God which reaches out and includes everyone – even the people of Nineveh – or wherever.

The Book of Jonah seems to me to pose a series of questions for us.   Firstly, where is the voice of protest today?  How do we, as Christ’s Church express our concern with passion and energy for the voiceless ones, the downtrodden ones, the hard-pressed ones, the needy ones in our Society today.  The film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a protest against the sheer impossibility of anything approaching a decent standard of living if you are on Benefits.  Then, on an International scale, with more United Nations Resolutions criticising and even condemning Israel for the ever-expanding Settlement programme and the treatment of the Palestinian People than on any other subject, how do we protest and find a way of justice and peace for all?  And the Rohingya people exiled from their homes in Burma? And, and….?

And where is ‘our’ Nineveh – a place where we really don’t want to go and full of people who seem beyond redemption.  God sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh not out of fervent religious zeal but out of deep compassion for people in their need.  Does our Church today need a voice of protest about our introspection, our inertia, our insularity?  Do we need a renewed conviction about the mercy and love of God for all – even those who seem to represent an evil empire in whatever form that takes?

Dare we sing in response to the question ‘Whom shall I send?’

‘Here I am Lord.
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Singing the Faith (663)

Bryan Coates
January 2021