Scripture: Psalm 137:1-9, Jonah 3:1-10 – 4:4
June 5, 2016
Rev. Bill Maury-Holmes
And I guess that I will never find out, which one of you wrote with a greasy lipstick
Babylon must fall
Babylon must fall
Babylon must fall
on the bathroom mirror
Catholic Discipline, “Underground Babylon”
“So what are we going to do about ISIS?” There it was, THE question. It didn’t take long to get there from a pleasant chat about our dogs this last Memorial Day morning at the bagel shop. When people find out that I teach World Religions it tends to come quickly these days. The horrors of December 2, here in our own community – six months ago now – are too close, as are those of Lebanon, Afghanistan, Paris, Nigeria, Belgium, Libya, Egypt and the ongoing tragedy in the primary region that contains Iraq and Syria.
John and his wife Annette are nearing their 70s, I would guess. He is a lawyer from Phoenix, successful enough to have a second home on Coronado. They are Mormons and somewhat savvy about religious nuances. He clearly knew the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, between the vast majority of faithful Muslims and their violent outliers, and they have even visited Islam’s third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. His question seemed honest to me.
What do we do in response to those who are bent upon our destruction (and, moreover, that of a lot of other people)? Those who not only wish ill upon us but act on it in vicious and cynical ways? I didn’t have any quick answers for him and I don’t have any quick answers for myself or you either. Rather than trade in false simplicity, I would rather look today at a too –familiar tale and what it tells us about the human heart when revenge is all that we can conceive. We may not find much of God in Jonah the very reluctant prophet, but we may find a lot of God around him in the story that famously bears his name.
It starts “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah” and, in response, Jonah went. Oh did he ever go! He went as far away as he could from where the Lord had called him to go. The Lord tells him to head east, towards Nineveh, towards what we know to be modern northern Iraq and give them a divine warning for their violence and wickedness. No thanks, responds Jonah. I think I’ll head west, get me a one-way ticket on a boat and aim for southern Spain, as far away on the Mediterranean as I can get. I’ve heard it’s real nice. The text even adds the odd detail that Jonah pays for the ticket himself. He’ll pay to get away from what God wants done!
Our character of Jonah is an interesting one. An obscure prophet in the 8th century BCE, he is seemingly re-purposed for a dark comedy with a potent message. “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew, reminding us of the first dove and the olive branch in the early chapters of Genesis, after the flood has receded and it becomes clear that land is near, life will go on and not all things were destroyed. The problem is that this Jonah is no agreeable bearer of peace and good news. Perhaps it would be better to have called him “hawk” or even “vulture.”
For, to put it indelicately, we learn that this Jonah is something of an asshole, a racist jerk whose hatred of another group is far more powerful in his life than a miraculous work of God’s mercy upon those same loathsome people. It appears that human hate can sometimes be more determinative than divine love and kindness, even amongst those who know the splendor of divine love. We will see more.
Jonah doesn’t get far in his voyage of avoidance before it all goes awry. A mighty storm comes upon the sea and in short time it becomes clear to all onboard – all folks seeking divine deliverances from certain watery death – that Jonah is cause for the fury. He outs himself and tells them to throw him overboard, a sacrifice to wrath. Nevertheless, out of basic human decency for one’s fellow, the crew tries to row the boat back to land, finally agreeing to Jonah’s request only when it becomes clear that they will all be goners otherwise. Here comes our big fish, swallowing Jonah as the comedy continues. The Mediterranean has some big fish – bluefin tuna anyone? This time though it is Jonah sushi.
How does one become a jerk of Jonah proportions? Many ways perhaps, but Psalm 137 gives us insight into some historical background from where may come such intense animosity. In three centuries the Jews were twice overrun, defeated and slaughtered by marauders from lands that today we label Iraq. In the 8th century it came from the northern Assyrians (721 BCE), in whose empire one of the leading cities was Nineveh. In the 6th century (586 BCE) it came from the Babylonians further south. The Babylonians really did a number on Israel, leveling much of the place (including Jerusalem), killing countless and hauling some of those who remained to a prison exile far from home. It can be noted that none of this was done in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention.
Psalm 137 is a lament, a song of pain cried out towards God and the universe. It is the blues if you will, and one of the darkest bits of scripture in the whole Bible. Addressing the experience of those exiled to Babylon, it tells of a brutalized people, the mockery and sorrow they endure and the longing they have for their former lives when they knew that they were God’s people and life was good. So says one of their captors, “Hey boy! Sing me one of them cute little ditties about Zion, wontcha? You know, ‘I will enter his courts with thanksgiving in my hearts, I will enter his courts with praise.’ Oh wait, clumsy me, we destroyed your temple. I guess that’s a sore topic!”
But it’s not just the land that has been taken from the people. It was their very future, the next generation, their kids. This is where Psalm 137 turns most brutal and likewise suggests the depth of savagery that Israel had undergone at the hands of the Babylonian conquest. “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back!” We find here a desire for revenge based on reciprocity, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Most horribly, a smashed child for a smashed child.
So Jonah may be an example and a mouthpiece for the anguish of a ravaged people, the Jews who watched powerlessly as their own small children were murdered in front of them. In this, the normal darkness of the human soul cannot but help fantasize of payback. After all, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” and man, would Jonah like to see that happen to the people of Nineveh (and maybe their little ones!) right about now.
So for all the ways that we progressives, much less those pacifists among us, like to avoid or downplay such raw anger, to deny that such sentiments live within our hearts is dishonest, false, untrue. Call it a primitive part of our makeup, or simply an evolutionary instinct to survive, but our greatest fury and animosity tends to reside in those places where we and those dear to us have been violated ourselves.
Jonah gets a second chance to do as God told. He gets barfed up, goes to Nineveh this time and does and says what he was suppposed to say, however begrudgingly. His words are notable for being brief, not a common trait amongst prophets. All he says is, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No speaking of God’s goodness, no theology at all, just a simple “Give it a few weeks and all you bastards are toast!”
Which, shockingly, works.
Despite the message and the hostile messenger, “everyone” in Nineveh believes God, starts mourning, stops eating. So does the king when the news gets to him. He renounces his power, literally steps down from his throne, and proclaims that all – humans and animals too! – are to turn, mourn and “cry mightily to God” in the hopes that they may find mercy. In one of the most humble and sincere takes of begging forgiveness in the entirety of the Bible, the king offers “Who knows? God may relent.” In response, God sees their switch, indeed changes his mind and doesn’t bring any destruction upon the Ninevites. The human capacity to change, to renounce evil and violence can lead to a new day of divine mercy and joy.
Well, all are changed but one… Of course this happens to the total displeasure of Jonah (and eggs on the Jewish audience). He then prays one of the strangest prayers to God of any ever given. “I knew it! This is exactly why I wanted a permanent vacation in Spain!” Jonah then unleashes an absolutely beautiful description of God, in line with what Moses found in the experience with God on the mountain in the Exodus. “I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So kill me now!”
Jonah’s own hatred towards the Ninevites is so strong that the best truth of God’s love isn’t enough to sway him from his hostilities. So he leaves, finds a place to sit, and hopes that Nineveh gets annihilated anyway, or he’ll simply die waiting for such vindication.
Where is God in this? Well, it’s not like Peter and Paul, for despite all their many flaws they come around to the good news of God’s love, for themselves and everyone else. The roads may not be simple ones (I don’t think Peter takes number #3 on his softball jersey, nor does Paul like to hear the name Saul) but they do become people whose lives are transformed by God’s goodness.
Jonah is left sitting, bitter. The outcome is unknown, part of the brilliance of the this little book. How will it be? How will it be for us when we are faced with people who have harmed us greatly? Marybeth always reminds me to be practical so here are three thoughts I have from our texts today.
First, we don’t want to be like Jonah in our own place and time. Raw Islamophobia may not be a problem for many in this congregation but it is obviously all too real in many ways outside these gentle walls. As with other contentious matters where the well-being of large groups of people are at stake, we do well to go beyond not being part of the problem but instead actively becoming allies to our many, many Muslim brothers and sisters of good faith. A little education is good. Developing some friendships would be better.
Relatedly, let’s be precise and – with our Muslim friends – call ISIS what it is: a heretical death cult. The ruins of ancient Nineveh lie just across the Tigris river from modern day Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that is one of ISIS bases of operations. In a very real way, that which Jonah wanted bombed into non-existence is a horror today in 2016.
And just as the idea that the Ninevites would turn from their violence and evil was unthinkable to Jonah, we want to be open to partner with the better angels that will ultimately prevail in that part of the world. The ideology of terror will come and go. What we don’t want to do is vote for leaders and implement policies that will make matters worse and inflame people so that they write their own versions of Psalm 137 about the mighty United States. All Ninevehs and Babylons will someday fall, including our own. We can emulate the Ninevites, for it is in their transformation that God most works in our story. Renouncing our violence with humility will stand the test of time.
Lastly, we want to be people who are open to forgive those who have wronged us, for reconciliation to be made possible and sometimes real. While not necessarily about geo-politics and people groups, on the personal scale this is hard. Jonah is reflective of a reality that we would usually prefer, to insulate ourselves and be protected from those who have wronged us badly. All the better if they get some comeuppance too. Karma isn’t always pleasant, is it?
But that’s not what God shows Jonah. I think of a college friend of mine. She came from what might be termed an All Star dysfunctional family. There was alcoholism and a lot of abuse of all kinds that came with it. College was literally an escape for her and the time and place where she found a faith that has nourished her for the past twenty five years. I remember when she began the baby steps of starting an adult relationship with her father, complete with all of the necessary boundaries and clarifications. I remember even more clearly the complexity that came into her life some years later when her prayers were answered and her dad gave up the drinking, embraced a higher power and began to make amends. That was tricky. She knew where to put him in her life when he was still dangerous. It wasn’t easy to know what to do with him now that God’s mercy and forgiveness had done its work.
The steadfast love of the Lord really is for everybody. For Jews, this is why the little book of Jonah is the afternoon reading on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the highest holiday of the Jewish calendar. May we not be like Jonah, but know him well.