See the readings for this Wednesday, February 25.
I wrote a lot last year on “the sign of Jonah,” and mentioned my question about God repenting both in this context and in the context of Ash Wednesday’s reading from Joel. I had picked this idea up from God: A Biography, another book by Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. The Lenten weekday readings are the same from year to year. At least one teacher of mine described them as a catechism for the elect, a crash course in Christianity for the last forty days before baptism, and as many of you know this was the kernel of the idea that became my book Change Our Hearts. This Wednesday we come around to Jonah again, but this year (for me) it bounces off yesterday's Year B reading about Noah and the ark.
Some see in the Jonah-fish imagery a sign of Christ in the “belly” of the earth for three days and then resurrected. But Jonah ends up where he doesn’t want to be, and Christ ends up risen from the dead. In the world of meaning, that's some pretty significant difference. So the “three days” connection doesn’t work for me on this one, and I went looking for another convergence on the sign of Jonah.
The book of Jonah is read in its entirety on the Jewish feast of atonement, Yom Kippur. In that context, one can draw a lot from the story: God is God. We humans, therefore, can’t run forever; God will find a way to get us where we need to be, and kicking against the goad only amplifies our suffering and that of those around us. Humanity is one; prejudice against other humans, especially religious or racial prejudice like Jonah’s for Nineveh (in Assyria), is dangerous and will be turned on its head by God. But what about that strange phrase: “He (God) repented of the evil he had threatened...”
Noah’s God is the back story of yesterday's (Lent 1) first reading. The vow of God never to destroy the world again by water was sealed with a covenant sign: God’s bow set in the sky as an everlasting memory. It’s a sign that God was retiring from the people-destroying business, but in the rest of the Old Testament, there was a lot more to come. In fact, in the psalms and elsewhere, the complaint about the situations the Jews find themselves in is turned against God, chiding the deity that if he doesn’t come to Judah’s assistance, the other nations will say, “Where is your god?” In other words, it’s a matter of divine pride. Whose god, like whose big brother on the playground, is really stronger? If the God if Israel is so great, why doesn’t he beat the crap out of the Baals of the other nations? Who gets bragging rights in the divine Super Bowl? Who gets the capital “G”? Certainly it seems, to any objective look at the history of the nation Israel, that its God must be very small indeed. Unless...
Unless, as Jack Miles describes, God is "repenting" of the idea of being a God who will change things by violent, forceful intervention. Reasonable theists might be uncomfortable with this idea on the surface of it, so let me put it in a way that makes more sense to me. Maybe God, inspiring the scripture, is finding a way to gradually disabuse us of the idea that god-ness means power and might, and might mean something more than a particular nation’s anthropomorphizing and apotheosizing of itself by creating a celestial warrior-king who makes sense of a nation’s ups and downs by victories and punishments. Maybe humanity, through the writers of the biblical literature, is gradually coming to understand that violence begets violence, because it always has an object, and the object will always find a way to bite back. Maybe humanity is gradually getting the idea, inspired by an agapic, communitarian, and kenotic God, that all human borders are artificial, that victimizing minorities and externs doesn’t solve problems, that war, murder, and genocide legitimated by religion (that is, by god(s)) are still murder, and that ultimately being with is more life-giving than being right or being powerful.
These are revolutionary thoughts. They’re not original thoughts of mine, but they are the thoughts at the heart of the gospel proclamation about the empire of God, the empire that is not like those of this world, the empire that Jesus peaceably announced as the antithesis and alternative Way to the empire of Augustus, son of god, prince of peace, and savior.
Jonah, cast in his story by a sea beast upon the very shore of the nation which he had gone to great lengths and suffering to avoid, is now faced with the task of preaching to his enemy. His only comfort is that these Assyrian jackasses will not listen to him, and that God will, as promised, burn their city to the ground, an event he hopes to witness from under a tree on a hill. What happens, to Jonah’s chagrin, is that both Assyria and its king repent, leading God to repent as well. Isn’t this about as fresh a word to us as our headlines, and as revolutionary a way of thinking as the preaching of Jesus himself? Never write anybody off, the story is telling us. Our boneheaded apologetics, nationalism, and religious sectarianism are dead-ends, stormy, death-ridden voyages that leave us shipwrecked and reeking of whale vomit on the shores of the very people upon whom we want to rain fire and brimstone. The “sign of Jonah” that calls this and every generation to conversion, then, is the sign of reconciliation, of enemies at table together, of victims lifted up and restored, of blood-feuds revoked and forgotten. The God of Noah is revealed, repudiating the bow, finding a way in the world through covenant and regeneration, starting with Sara’s laughter outside the shady tent at the terebinth of Mamre, and ending with the wedding feast of the Lamb when every clock has ticked off its last nanosecond.
Jack Miles’s literary reading of the Bible shows that it might, in fact, be God there, drenched in fish-puke and still breathing fire, when it’s suddenly apparent that s/he’s on the wrong side of history, and being God, s/he ought to be shaping the future. What better reason for us to change our hearts than the blinding revelation that God has somehow blazed even that trail for us?
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.