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3rd Ordinary B
by Arch Taylor

Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 62; 1 Cor 7: 29-31: Mark 1: 14-20

The Jonah and Mark pericopes come as natural sequels to previous ones dealing with the baptism and call of Jesus, and the calls of Samuel and Nathaniel. In dealing with these, I wish to raise some questions about the ambivalence of God's call and our response.

JONAH 3: 1-10

Avoiding the common tendency to take up the story of Jonah as an isolated unit, we need to pay attention to a few of the more subtle nuances of the textual and inter-textual details of the work. I depend for a good deal of what follows on Andre and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, , JKP, 1981.

In 2 Kings 14.23-27 we read that "the God of Israel...spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Hepher" to the effect that during the reign of the evil king Jeroboam II of Israel (786-746 BCE), YHWH had pity on Israel and restored the borders of the kingdom to almost Davidic proportions. From the standpoint of international politics, Israel's restoration came about because Assyria's attacks on the western border of Israel's chief enemy, Syria, had made it impossible for Syria to hold on to the occupied Israelite territory.

Some commentators may call Jonah a "prophet of salvation" in contrast to the other prophets who condemned corporate and individual sin and predicted judgment on Israel. If one takes the Book of Jonah as "history", one must reckon with the fact that in forestalling the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Jonah preserved the enemy empire which cruelly destroyed his own homeland in 721 BCE. No knowledgable reader of Jonah should overlook this point.

Most expositors consider the book a "parable" written in post-exilic times to oppose the narrowness of the temple-centered, priest-ridden power structure of Jerusalem reflected in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah. While true, one must avoid a simplistic contrast between a "liberal" author of Jonah caricaturing "conservative" maintainers of the status quo. The protagonist "Jonah" has some claim to sympathetic attention.

The post-exilic community saw none of the glowing promises they had heard from the likes of "Second Isaiah". The rulers of God's people, the Persians, prospered mightily, while God's own people lived in miserable contempt. Peoples obviously morally inferior to Israel seemed to receive abundant blessings from Israel's God. Why should one undertake to advance the cause of such people? To understand the conscientiously held view of "Jonah" one must recall, for example, vss 38-52 of Psalm 89, of which vss 1-4,19-26 were among the readings assigned as recently as December 19, 1999, 4th Sunday of Advent. The verses for Advent stress the utter faithfulness of YHWH in choosing David and promising to him and his house an eternal, victorious dynasty ("I will not lie to David"). The Lectionary never takes up the last one-third of Ps 89 which directly accuses YHWH precisely of having broken the divinely sworn covenant, casting the crown in the dust, and burning with wrath.

Nahum's exultation over Nineveh destroyed reflects a faithful Israelite's celebration of YHWH's vindicating justice. To Israel, through prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God had offered forgiveness in response to their repentance. As the Lacoques point out, "There is nothing in Jeremiah or Ezekiel to make us extend that which is valid for God's people to God's foes!" (p. 76). Yet Jonah suspects that YHWH will really extend mercy to Nineveh, the paradigm of the evil enemy (Jon 4.2: "O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing").

As the Lacocques write (p 15), "Jonah 4.2--the veritable center of gravity of the whole book--presents a liturgical formula which is normally reserved for the relations between God and his people exclusively (see Exod. 34.6; Ps. 103.8; etc.)" It reminds me of Paul in Romans 4.5 talking about God "who justifies the ungodly" whereas in Ex 23.7 God declares, "I will not acquit the wicked," and Prov 17.15 says, "He who justifies the wicked...[is] an abomination to the LORD." How, then, can Jonah possibly take part in such a flagrant example of divine injustice as to aid in the preservation of this wicked city? To adapt a prophetic metaphor, should YHWH commit "adultery" by deserting the covenant partner for another?

In fleeing from YHWH to avoid complicity in that injustice, Jonah shows willingness to perform an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of his people. Pursued by God and faced with impending death in the storm God unleashed upon the sea, Jonah again offers himself as sacrifice on behalf of the innocent sailors endangered by his defection. As a result, these Gentile sailors become worshippers of YHWH.

So Jonah "dies" in the sea and in the belly of the fish. There he prays to God in terms of conviction that God has already heard him and saved him. After that, Jonah is "resurrected" when God commands the fish to spit him out on the land. Having experienced God's unconditional grace, Jonah now goes to Nineveh, where he proclaims an unconditional decree: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" That, and nothing more.

Responding to this "bare-bones" announcement, the people of Nineveh did what Abraham did: "They believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth." From this grass roots beginning the movement rose as high as the royal throne, and the King commanded an extension of the fast even to the domestic animals. Despite the seemingly immutable decree, he makes a bet: "Who knows? Perhaps God will repent..."

The miracle is that the "perhaps" of the Ninevites corresponds to the secret desire of God to send his prophet to Nineveh in the first place. "From the start, the oracle destined for the Ninevites was not unconditional prediction...In other words, it is up to the Ninevites to tip God's word one way or the other." (The Jonah Complex, p 70)

Repentance looms large in Jonah: the sailors', Jonah's, the Ninevites'. The Lacocques cite the Jewish scholar Elias Bickerman's distinction between Heb and Gk repentance. The former is contrition of heart; the latter implies a mere intellectual value judgment and is oriented toward future behavior rather than the moral condemnation of the past (note 25, p 143). But YWHW also repents! As the Lacocques say, God has bet on the Ninevites. They quote the Jewish scholar Neher:

Beneath the deceptively simple surface of this short story lie profound questions of faith and practice. In Jonah we see a subtle, if not sophisticated, intra-biblical debate concerning the purpose, and, indeed, the very character of God. A careful reading of Jonah like that of the Lacocques uncovers far more points than one can deal with in a paper like this or in a single sermon. However the following questions come to my mind:

This psalm starkly declares the importance of trusting only in God ['elohim] exclusively, contrasting the wickedness and/or vanity of humankind.

As the first word in vss 1 & 2 the author uses the Heb particle ['ak] to emphasize the idea of exclusiveness: Only for God does my soul wait...only he is my rock... In contrast, he emphasizes the wickedness of his (?) adversaries. In v 3 he asks, "How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you...?" and in v 4 beginning again with ['ak] he declares "Only from his high position do they plot to bring him down." He repeats his declaration of trust in 5 & 6: "Only for God does my soul wait...only he is my rock..." The psalmist then appeals to "people" to follow his example: "Trust in him at all times, pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us."

In v 9, again using ['ak], the psalmist reverts to the contrast of humankind in comparison to God: "Only a breath are humans as a race (bne 'adam), each individual (bne 'ish) a delusion." V 10 warns against criminal pursuit of worldly wealth and in v 11 he again draws the contrast: "Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God." In the last verse, addressed directly to the deity, the psalmist adds: "And unto You, my Lord, steadfast love [belongs], for You repay to all according to their work."

Mays points out that the characteristics of power and steadfast love "are important here because they validate trust. Power means that God can, and loyal love means that God will, requite a man according to what he does. God will vindicate those who trust him and shatter the illusions of those who trust human strength through violence." (Interpretation Psalms p. 217)

In light of our earlier consideration of Jonah, one can't help observing: If God truly repaid all according to their work, the Ninevehs of this world, to say nothing of ordinary men and women, could not survive. Perhaps an uncritical and unnuanced adherence to the conclusion of this psalm, within the faith community of Israel, contributed to the writing of Jonah when the community had to reckon with the question of God's (and their own) relationship to those outside.

1 CORINTHIANS 7: 29-31

This pericope resonates somewhat with Ps 62's admonition not to seek or trust in wealth, especially that gained by criminal means. Today's selection occurs in a broader double context: Paul addresses 1] questions of sexual morality (see last week, 6.12-20), 2] in light of his belief in the imminence of the eschaton. We find it difficult to understand everything he says about sex, and we "old-line" Protestants don't think that Jesus will return in the immediate future. Certainly the "non-event" of Y2K strengthens that conviction. Nevertheless we can very profitably study and try to apply 7.31b stated more accurately than NRSV: "For the outward-form of this world is passing away".

It goes without saying that at any moment in human history, one can find evidence that the outward-form [Gk schema] of the world is passing away. Today, especially, the mind-boggling rapidity of change in our technology driven world leaves many people disoriented and increasing numbers threatened with insecurity and poverty. Today (01/18/00) both NPR and the local newspaper report that over the past 10 years, the lower 20% of US population's income has increased by only 1% while the income of the top 20% has increased by 15%. Meanwhile, the gap between First World people and Two-Thirds World people grews at an even greater pace. Buy outs, take overs, down sizing, environmental degradation--all prove the passing away of outward form. Under these circumstances we need to echo and second the psalmist's call to trust only in God.

But the Gk word [schema], outward form, applies only to the surface, superficial phenomena which can change in myriad ways without altering the essential character of this world, [Gk ho kosmos toutos]. In , the third volume of Walter Wink's remarkable trilogy, he defines kosmos thus (p 51):

Wink goes on to describe this human sociological realm existing in estrangement from God as the domination system. In my view Wink means at least our capitalist, free market world circling economic system (mammon) under whose domination the few rich and powerful get richer and more powerful, while the vast majority get weaker and poorer. The outward form of this domination system does change, but our enslavement to mammon becomes increasingly restrictive because the system itself remains estranged from the Creator/Redeemer God.

How can we as preachers, teachers, pastors, together with our people, put our trust only in God? How can we survive the rapidly changing outward form of this system? How can we buy material things (distinguishing between needs and wants) as though we have no possessions? How can we deal with the system as though not dealing with it? And finally, how can we go beyond merely responding to the outward form of the system--to mobilize so as to buck the system, challenge the system, change the system, participate in redeeming the system?

MARK 1: 14-20

Mark's mention that Jesus began his public ministry after the arrest of John indicates at least in his mind a definite break. Does the incarceration of his teacher/mentor mean that Jesus will undertake to carry on the same program, or will he now strike out on his own? In Matt 4.17 Jesus first proclaims the same message as John in 3.2: "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near."

Mark, however, makes significant differences between the two men. He introduces Jesus' first words by calling his proclamation "The good news of God." Jesus first proclaims, "The time is fulfilled" indicating a step beyond John. Jesus repeats John's call for repentance but says nothing about the fierce fiery judgment John had predicted. Jesus concludes his first announcement with the call, "believe in the good news." Mark shows us a Jesus significantly different from John without resorting to the put downs of John used in the other gospels.

When Jesus calls the first disciples, they respond immediately (a favorite word of Mark's) and abandon their jobs to follow him. Simon and Andrew might not have found that so difficult as we might today. According to Watjen, they were so poor they didn't own a boat; they were *in* the sea casting nets, not, as NRSV has it, "casting a net *into* the sea" as though from a boat. Under the circumstances they had little to lose by following, but to them it was "everything" (Mk 10.28).

What did we give up or abandon when we answered the call? What about students graduating from seminary with heavy debts? "second career" folks already with families? How does the domination system determine the way we respond to the call?

What did Jesus mean when he told the brothers "I will make you fish for people?" People catch fish in order to kill and eat them. All the OT references cited in his commentary on Mark by Vincent Taylor (Jer 16.16; Amos 4.2; Hab 1.14-17; Ezek 29.4-5) referring to fishing have definitely negative meanings. In Matt 13.47-48 the fishers sort out their catch, put the "good" into baskets (for sale and consumption?) but throw out the "bad" (back into the water?).

What did the disciples get from following Jesus? In Mark, up to 8.30 people get certain benefits, e.g., healings and exorcisms and feeding, from following Jesus. But from 8.31 on Jesus tells his followers they must expect suffering and death--to bear their own crosses as he would bear his. What does it mean to bear the cross today? Is that the real meaning of "the good news of God" which Mark says Jesus proclaimed?

What do we have to offer people when we invite them to follow Jesus? What should we lead them to expect? What do we expect?

(Comments to Arch at arch.taylor@ecunet.org.)