On the rare occasion that I go fishing I release any fish that I catch. Some of my friends ridicule me for this practice. They ask, “Why not take your catch home?” The answer is simple: it’s much easier, and much less messy, to get cleaned and fileted fish from the grocery store. I enjoy fishing, but I’ve never enjoyed scaling and cleaning a catch. I can only imagine how miserable it was for Jonah to be captive in a fish’s belly for three days. It seems, however, that there was something even more disagreeable to him than the insides of a fish.
Our first reading today begins immediately after Jonah had been spat onto the shore by the fish. Jonah had a (minor), change of heart during his captivity, and prayed to God for deliverance. God answered Jonah’s prayer by delivering him to the front gate of Nineveh, where God intended him to preach repentance to the city.
As he was given no other options Jonah began his journey through the city proclaiming, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) The citizens of Nineveh needed neither the forty day warning, nor the three days it would have taken Jonah to travel through the city. They repented immediately. (Jonah 3:5)
Our reading concludes before we hear Jonah’s reaction to their repentance, but it is worth our while to be reminded of it. When he saw the whole city repent of their sins Jonah became angry because God showed mercy to Nineveh. Jonah was so upset by the city’s repentance, and God’s decision not to punish the city for its sins, that he said to God, “Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3)
It might seem very strange to us that Jonah was so intent to see the city of Nineveh destroyed, but his anger makes a great deal of sense in light of Israel’s ancient history. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. The book of Jonah was written shortly after the Israelite exiles were allowed to return from the Exile that was precipitated by Assyria’s conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrian Empire had come and gone, but Nineveh was still Israel’s enemy. Jonah, like any patriotic Israelite, would have been more than happy to see the former conqueror destroyed. For this reason he lamented that God had shown mercy to the Ninevites. (Jonah 4:2)
It seems somewhat strange that God would send Jonah to help a former enemy of God’s People. Jonah’s mission to the Ninevites was something akin to the logical contradiction of sending Michael Bennett (who has seven sacks for the Sea Hawks this season), to spend a long weekend offering encouragement to Tom Brady, telling him how to avoid trouble with the Sea Hawks’ defensive squad during the Super Bowl. With that seeming contradiction we come to the point of the book of Jonah.
The book of Jonah was intended to shame the Israelites into living faithful lives. They had returned from their Exile; they had their country back. They could again engage in Temple worship, and despite all these advantages they failed to be faithful. Jonah was the perfect representation of Israel after its return from the Exile. Jonah had everything that he could have wanted or asked for; he even received immediate answers to his prayers. Despite all those advantages he was lacking in faith and lacking in justice. At every turn, he ran from God.
Jesus saw the same faithlessness during his ministry. Some people responded immediately to Jesus’ call to repentance. Today’s Gospel reading is an example of the wholehearted response that some people made to Jesus’ preaching. (Mark 1:14-20) Most, however, found Jesus’ call to repentance to be disagreeable. (Mark 3:1-6) The demands of discipleship are no less repugnant to people today than they were during biblical times.
Jesus’ call to discipleship requires undivided loyalty. Simon, Andrew, James and John left everything to follow Jesus. (Mark 1:18) Their immediate response is an illustration of the new life that Jesus preached about and offered to those who put their faith in him. The new life of discipleship is one focused completely on God; it requires a complete reorientation of one’s priorities in which one gives all of one’s energies to serving God and neighbor. This is a daunting task, a high calling, a destiny that can be as disagreeable as being swallowed by a fish.
Perhaps you find it difficult to give yourself over completely to God. Perhaps there are people whom you simply cannot forgive in the way that Jesus taught. Perhaps you’d rather focus your energies more on yourself than on your neighbor. Perhaps you find Jesus’ teaching admirable but too difficult to put into practice. If you find some attraction to the teaching of Jesus, and some disagreement with its demands, I have a suggestion for you.
If you find that you are on the fence about faith, try on something new: try a change of heart. If you are a reluctant believer, try a new approach to life: try repentance. If you find you are deeply troubled by someone in your environment who is a source of constant irritation to you, give them the example of repentance; perhaps they’ll change their ways if they see you do so.
It was not mere coincidence that Jonah was sent back to the place of Israel’s disgrace. He was sent to his former captors to preach repentance and freedom from punishment because he had yet to experience those things himself; he was still very much a captive of his own faithlessness. Repentance resolves the seeming contradictions that arise from the demands of faith. Repentance moves us closer to seeing the world from God’s point of view. Repentance moves us out of the fish’s belly that is composed of our own fears and worries and stubbornness; as such, repentance is freedom.
Jonah’s message from God was “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) In a very real sense, God’s promise to overthrow Nineveh came true. Upon hearing the preaching of Jonah the city repented, and turned their hearts toward God. Nineveh was renewed by its repentance; the old city of Nineveh ceased to exist, and a new city of faith emerged. Sin was overthrown, and justice was born. The same renewal of life is available to anyone who hears Jesus’ preaching, and repents.
The perception that faithful discipleship is too difficult a task is not an accurate perception. The fact that we experience discipleship as imposing disagreeable requirements is more a reflection of our sin and estrangement from God than it is a reflection of the reality of faith. Deliverance from what we find disagreeable about life, and deliverance from what we find demanding about discipleship, comes from the same place. Deliverance comes from repentance because repentance is freedom and new life.