Friday, September 8, 2017

The Caution of Jonah

For the past couple of days, we've been looking at the prophet Ezekiel and his unique witness to the people of Israel, a witness that is much-needed in the world today. When we talk about prophets in general, Ezekiel is not really tops on our list; we prefer the fire-and-brimstone, radical truth and judgment of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah (although, again, to consider this even their primary witness is a gross misreading of the prophets' hearts). 

But even further down on our list than the weird prophet Ezekiel is the disobedient prophet Jonah, who we barely consider a prophet at all. This is tragic, for Jonah, too, has something very important to teach us about witnessing in our world.

When we think about Jonah, we think about how disobedient he was. That, we think, is what he has to teach us - the dangers of being disobedient to what God is calling us to do, even when it's something that we don't particularly want to do. We should go anyway, do the faithful thing, do what God asks us to do, because it's not really avoidable. No matter how far we run, God will find us, and we'll end up doing what He wants us to do anyway. 

Well, isn't that just a cute little story.

What we often read right past, and what is absolutely essential that we understand about Jonah, is not that he was disobedient, but why he was disobedient: he had already judged Nineveh.

Jonah didn't refuse to go to Nineveh because he was busy. He didn't question whether God had sent him, trying to figure out if the call was legitimate or not. He wasn't dragging his feet because it was a long and dirty road and he'd just rather not. 

Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he had some very strong notions about who the Ninevites were, and he didn't want them to have God's grace. The people of Nineveh were disgusting to Jonah and an abomination unto God. As far as the prophet was concerned, they could all burn in Hell. 

This is the very dangerous truth that we have to know about Jonah's story, precisely because it is such an easy temptation for the church to fall into today. I hate to say that. It breaks my heart to say that. But the witness of the judgment-loving church in the modern world is clear: far too many Christians have already made up their minds about the disgusting peoples in the world - adulterers, pedophiles, homosexuals, atheists, black people, white people, abortion providers, politicians, males, females, liberals, conservatives, whoever it is that we feel self-righteous about being judgmental of. And we are unwilling to be the Lord's prophets to these persons.

As far as we're concerned, they can all just burn in Hell. (And we've almost made a sport out of telling them as much.) 

This is tragic. It's heartbreaking. And for too long, the church has lied to herself and convinced herself that this is what God actually requires of her. After all, didn't the prophets judge the people? Didn't they condemn them? 

No. No, the prophets didn't. To believe that that's the heart of the prophets is a gross misreading of the prophecy of the Old Testament. And in fact, if we look at the one case where the prophet really did judge and condemn the people - the case of Jonah - we see that this is the example we have always used of unfaithfulness. Nobody, we say, should want to be a prophet like Jonah.

But we are. All the time. 

And just like the prophet, who probably never did get all of the fish guts out of his hair, we reek.

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