By Magrey DeVega
St. Paul's UMC, Cherokee, IA
First, read Jonah 4:9
The story of Jonah sits there in our Bible, the 32nd book out of 66, pretty much at the half-way point of our Bible, to give us a light-hearted, whimsical change of pace from the rest of the Scriptures.
Right there, between the doom and gloom oracles of Obadiah and the judgment-filled seriousness of the book of Micah, comes this highly-entertaining, intentionally comical story about a good man gone bad. It is essentially a morality tale wrapped in comic-book clothing, laced with enough fantastic, child-like features to make it one of the best known stories in the whole Bible.
But amid the cartoonish qualities of the story, let’s not lose sight of the deeper meaning here. What we discover is that as timeless as this story has become, it could not be more timely for today.
When God called Jonah to deliver a message of repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah decided he could escape God. In essence, Jonah believed in a territorial God, one whose jurisdiction was defined by geographic boundaries. He believed that the Jewish God was supreme ruler only on Jewish land. But as soon as you crossed the border, you left the province and presence of God.
We therefore learn two things fairly quickly about Jonah. One, he hated outsiders. Two, he had a limited view of God.
And, come to think of it, don’t those two things go hand in hand?
Here’s the fundamental truth of the Jonah story. If you have a limited view of God, you have a limited view of God’s love, and you then have a limited capacity to love other people.
If you have a universal view of God, one that breaks political and geographic boundaries, from whom you cannot escape and cannot hide, then you have an expansive, overarching, broad sense of God’s love. In turn, you have an unbelievable, irrational capacity to love people who are different from you.
Prejudice is a theological issue.
This is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa dared to call racism the “ultimate blasphemy.” In an address to the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he said,
“Racism is ‘the ultimate blasphemy’ because it could make a child of God doubt that she or he was a child of God. Racism is never benign and conventional and acceptable, for it is racism that resulted in the awfulness of lynchings and the excesses of slavery; it spawned the Holocaust and apartheid and was responsible for ethnic cleansing. People of faith cannot be neutral on this issue. To stand on the sidelines is to be disobedient to the God who said we are created, all of us, in this God's image."
You see, if you believe in a God who is big enough to imprint on all of creation the image of God, and to call us children of God, then you must believe its corollary proposition, which is that we must love everyone.
Jonah was committing the “ultimate blasphemy.” His view of God was too small, and he believed that God was God only of his country and no other. So as it turns out, the real repenting that needed to happen in the Jonah story was not just Ninevah, but Jonah himself. And we also must lay down our prejudices and admit our bent toward racial, ethnic, political, and international blasphemy as well.
But here’s the good news. We are each called to be Jonahs in our world today, but we don’t have to respond as Jonah did. We can have a big enough view of God that enables us to have a big enough love for people in the world around us.
The real question is, “Will you see those different from you as fellow children of God?”
Prayer: God, help me to see others the way you see everyone: as your children, created in your image. And help me be a messenger of love and hope to everyone who needs it, without bias or selfishness. Amen.
In what ways are you similar to the attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors of Jonah?
Who are the “Ninevites” in your life – those whom you have trouble loving because they are different from you or because they have wronged you?
How might you expand your view of God’s love, and thereby expand your ability to love others?