(A sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce, 24th January 2021).
If we can think beyond boats, storms and whales from Sunday School lessons about Jonah, we might find ways that the story is surprisingly relevant.
God called Jonah the prophet to deliver a hard message to the city of Ninevah. God had seen their wickedness and Jonah was to call them to repentance. Jonah was reluctant to go. More about that later. Instead, Jonah fled in the other direction. Sunday School lessons have given a negative spin on Jonah. Shouldn’t he have been like those fisherman in today’s Gospel reading who just dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus, no questions asked. Shouldn’t Jonah have just eagerly shared God’s message to the people in Ninevah?
Let me tell you about Ninevah, the largest city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, on the outskirts of Mosul in what is modern-day northern Iraq. Nineveh was a city great in power, culture, and size. The citizens of Nineveh felt secure behind its massive walls – some 30 metres high and broad enough for three chariots to be driven abreast on the roadway running along their top. The Assyrian Empire was powerful, and sought to conquer the world. Enter Jonah, a Jewish man, who God asked to leave his own country of Israel, and go into the heartland of an enemy people, to declare the coming wrath of God.
Now, the Assyrian empire considered the Jewish God inferior to their own, especially since their own gods had prevailed. Ninevah as a city was thriving, defeating enemies, gaining power and wealth. Nobody would have felt they were evil and needed to repent – they just relished the success they had achieved.
To maintain its power, the Empire had a way of dealing harshly with anyone who challenged the status quo. Jonah knew he risked imprisonment at the very least for the message he would bring. Ninevah was infamous for mutilating and torturing its prisoners. He faced the prospect that he might even be killed as soon as he opened his mouth. The prophet Nahum had called Ninevah ‘the city of blood’.
Jonah declared, “40 days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He had the audacity and courage to speak truth to power, right there in the centre of the city that served as the capital of the Empire. Just 8 words (5 in Hebrew). And God wasn’t even mentioned. Nor was there any mention of what the people should do in response.
But, surprisingly, the city listened, took it seriously, and acted. A fast was proclaimed; everyone wore sackcloth. Even the King put on sackcloth and sat in the ashes. I’d like to see a few current day leaders repent, don the sackcloth and repent! The King declared everyone should turn from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands, so that God’s mind would be changed and the people would not perish. Indeed, that’s what happened. The threatened calamity was averted. I could round this off by saying this passage from Jonah reminds us that people can, in fact, turn from their unfaithful ways, and that the voice of a prophet can be extremely powerful!
But we need to read on – the punchline is that Jonah was angry with God when the Ninevah actually put on a show of repentance. He was angry because God’s mind could be changed so easily, just because the oppressor had a temporary change of heart and put on a bit of a show. In fact, the Assyrian Empire would quickly return to its ways. History reveals Assyria conquered Israel in waves in the late 8th century deporting most of its citizens. A remnant remained in the north, but the nation of Israel was under Assyrian rule. Tens of thousands were deported and put to work as servants in Assyria. And then, the Assyrians began to populate Israel with people from other nations they had defeated (2 Kings 17:24).
This was a practice called geographical migration, or transmigration, where they would invade an area and uproot the heart of their society, forcing them to move to another region of the Empire. It’s a strategy still used in our world. The resulting confusion and terror ensured that the people can never rise against their oppressors. Scholar Christy Randazzo cites three factors: ignorance – since the people had no knowledge about the new place in which they were forced to live and work; starvation (“uprooting” was meant literally: they lost their carefully tended fields, which often took generations to cultivate); cultural trauma because so many cultural practices had been linked to the physical landscape, the land itself. Many turned to the gods of the Empire for comfort.
Empire would cut the heart out of a people, in effect killing their entire sense of “peoplehood.” This form of cultural genocide was, and is, irrefutably “evil”. It’s part of our Australian story and the dispossession and dislocation of First Peoples. It’s why the conversation about January 26th matters.
The Assyrian Empire was clearly the oppressor in this story. Violence. Nations and patriots. Power, privilege and entitlement was on their side. Oppressive systems and structures.
Jonah was a lone voice calling for change, for justice, for repentance. Jonah’s call for change, had it led to transformative change, would have enabled the nation of Israel to safely live in peace, to be unafraid. His call for change is replicated in those voices from the margins over the centuries calling for transformative change, for the sake of the poor and marginalised. Repeatedly, the biblical witness tells us that God’s priority is for the welfare of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. The groundswell of such voices led to the Black Lives Matter movement. To the Civil Rights movement. To recognising Aboriginal people in the 1967 Referendum.
How does the Church speak to the Empires of our day? How do we listen to the voices of the prophets in our midst calling for justice, mercy and repentance? To turn from evil and towards good. Modern day prophets, like Jonah before them, will be angry when repentance is lip service only and does not lead to changed lives, nor substantive systemic change that disrupts power and privilege. Injustices need to be named, and structures that created and sustained injustice completely reimagined. Anything else is cheap repentance, the cause of Jonah’s anger.
What is needed is a change of heart.
The Book of Jonah may have been written in the context of Jewish people encountering cultural genocide by the Assyrian invaders, to explain what was happening to them. They would have resonated with Jonah’s rage. How could Ninevah, the centre of the Assyrian Empire, the one that would destroy God’s own people, be reconciled to God? Jonah lamented, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you’re a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing”.
God: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. God’s love is for all, even enemies like the Assyrian Empire – when there is repentance. The prophet Isaiah (Ch19) says, “Behold the days are coming when God’s promises are all fulfilled. Behold the days are coming, when I will bless Assyria, my people Egypt to my chosen, and Israel, my inheritance”. There is the possibility of many blessed, beloved chosen peoples.
God never gives up hope on anyone, even the least likely.
Thanks be to God. Amen.