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Jonah: Prophet for Post-Modern Society
As the young Pony Express rider gallops into the station, the station-keeper brings out a fresh horse. The rider grabs the mailbags, jumps from his horse, jumps onto the other horse, and gallops off.
The adventure of the Pony Express is an indelible part of Western mythology. It began on April 3, 1860. With a chain of relay stations supplying fresh horses and riders, the Pony Express could carry a letter from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento California in nine or ten days. This was a vast improvement over previous methods of communications. Before the Express, the mail had gone by stagecoach and taken something like three weeks to cover the same distance.
However, for all its speed and glory, the Pony Express lasted less than two years. The company ceased operations on October 24, 1861. The owners and promoters were bankrupt. There was no more need for horse-borne communications. The telegraph now stretched from coast to coast.
Before the invention of the telegraph, the Pony Express was the best that could be done when it came to conveying a message from one point to anothernine or ten days from Missouri to California--but by the end of 1861, using the dots and dashes of Morse Code, the same message could be sent in a few minutes. Then in 1876, fifteen years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. The next generation would have radio, and the next television. In 1960, the first communication satellites were launched.
The cliché is that it is a small world. Of course, the world is the same size that it has always been, but our methods of communication and transportation have improved so much in the last couple of centuries that we have moved into a new phase of civilization. In this new phase, we take instant communications for granted. The new American salute is a cell phone glued to the ear. We seem to think that we can call anyone anytime, or send them an email. Of course, there are still limitations. Most people in the world do not have a telephone, much less an email address. Still it is amazing to realize how easily, and often, the average American communicates with others, and to realize how recent this development is.
This revolution in communications and travel combined with a host of other scientific and technological advances has contributed hugely to the success of our species. I remember a biology professor talking about how we know when a species is doing well. His answer was simple. There are a lot of them. Homo sapiens sapiens is doing very well today, because there are a lot of us, six billion of us.
Because there are more of us, and because of our burgeoning technology, our economy has already gone global. We drive cars made in Japan, listen to CD players manufactured in china, wear clothing that comes from the Caribbean. Two centuries ago, almost all the products we used were manufactured locally by local farmers and artisans. Today, almost nothing we use is manufactured locally. This then is not the same society that existed two hundred years ago, and the prejudices and attitudes of two centuries ago are not going to work in this new global society.
A couple of hundred years ago, we could talk as if God were only interested in our little town. If we were expansive we could say that God is concerned about our state, maybe even our nation. But that was about it. And that was all right because we did not have much to do with people from other states, and generally we had nothing at all to do with foreigners. We did not actually regard foreigners as complete human beings. That is why we invented derogatory nicknames for them. We called the French "frogs," the Germans "krauts," the Italians "wops," the Japanese "nips," the Chinese "chinks," and so on. And that did not matter much because we did have much contact with any frogs, krauts, wops, nips, or chinks anyway. Now we do, and we cannot very well speak ugly of people whose cars we buy, whose clothing we wear, who build our homes and raise our food.
We need new attitudes to deal with our new situation. The new attitudes are not new; we have had them several thousand years; but we have not used them on a global level. A source for these new-old attitudes is an old book, one of the books of the Bible, the book of Jonah.
A book could be written about what we do not know about the book of Jonah. We do not know the author. The book is written in third person, so it seems obvious that Jonah was not the author.
We do not know when the book was written. It cannot be earlier that the reference to the prophet Jonah ben Amittai in II Kings 14:25which was during the reign of Jeroboam II (around 750 b.c.), but the probabilities are that it was much later than that.
While the prophets before the exile were concerned about the nations of the world and brought them under the judgment of God, those prophets did not speak of a mission of salvation to the gentiles. The prophet Jonah has that same exclusivist outlook. He does not think that Gentiles can, or should, be saved.
The book of Jonah is a protest against the views that Jonah expresses. The book was probably written after the exile to Babylon, after 586 B.C. The Exile forced Jews into contact with Gentiles, and some Jews--not all, not even most--began to realize that Gentiles were people too. The author of Jonah was one such Jew. Thus, Jonah has at least two messages for postmodern society.
The first message from Jonah is the universal dominion of God. God is the creator of all, and God is everywhere. To which most readers will reply, "Everyone knows that." But Jonah did not. When God commanded that he preach in Nineveh, Jonah did not want to go, and he thought that he could disobey God by going where God was not. So we read in 1:3, "Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord." Jonah believed that the God of Israel had power and presence only in Israel and if he left the country, he left God.
Many people still believe that. They may have been taught that God is everywhere, but they do not really believe it. For example, we have all heard stories about the young man or woman, who was a perfect role-model while they were growing up. They went to Sunday school and church. They never gave mom and dad a moments trouble. Then they went off to college and became a perfect hellionbecause though God may be in hometown USA, God certainly is not in that wicked college town.
Again, we speak of some places as holier and therefore more godly than others. We talk about the "holy land" of Israel and the "holy city" of Jerusalem. But all land is holy and all cities are holy because they all are God's creation. It is a small world, and all of it is Gods world, and wherever we go, even to Tarshish, God is there.
This leads us then to the second message from Jonah. All People are the children of God. Jonah believed that only Israelites were Gods people. But God decides to teach him a lesson.
In the book of Jonah, this lesson is driven home by showing us two groups of Gentiles whom God loves. The first set of Gentiles are the sailors on board the ship in which Jonah set sail for Tarshish. A storm comes up; the ship is about to sink, and the sailors call upon their Gods. They discover that Jonah is the cause of their desperate situation. But the sailors are decent people. They do not want to throw Jonah overboard. They try in every possible way to avoid doing harm to Jonah. Only at the last moment, at the last desperate gasp, do they finally offer Jonah up as a sacrifice to God by throwing him into the waves. God saved the sailors. God accepted their sacrifice and stopped the storm.
Gods care for all people is demonstrated even more spectacularly in the second set of Gentilesthe Assyrians. To Jonah, God could not have picked a worse people to love. The Assyrians were cruel conquerors. They would eventually defeat Israel and transport the ten northern tribes to an unknown fate. Of all the people in the world, Jonah hated Assyrians the most.
But after God miraculously saved him from drowning, Jonah was so afraid of God that he reluctantly went to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to deliver Gods message. The substance of his preaching was that God had had it with their evil ways and that in forty days God would destroy the city. Then something happened that Jonah never would have believed possible. The people of Nineveh believed Jonah. They clothed themselves with sackcloth and ashes; they fasted, and turned from their sins, and pleaded with God for forgiveness. When God saw their repentance, he heard their pleas and changed his mind and forgave them.
Jonah was livid. The people of Nineveh were idolaters who had no right to receive mercy from the hands of God. Jonah is so upset by this inconceivable turn of events that he begs God to kill him. He cannot bear to live in a world where God loves every person.
In 4:4 God asks a question: "Dost thou well to be angry?" It is almost as if God cannot believe how narrow and bigoted Jonah is.
To teach Jonah a lesson, God raised up a plant to shade him. In desert country, shade is much sought after, and Jonah liked the plant, but overnight the plant withered and died. When the sun came up the next day and began to beat down on Jonahs head, Jonah once again bewailed his fate and said, "O Lord let me die. Life is just not worth living."
Again God asks a question:"Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?" The miserable prophet replies, "Yes, I do. I ought to be angry because the plant died." And God said, you pity a plant that grew up in a night and perished in a night, but you do not care about a whole people simply because they are not from your little county and your little group.
There is no indication that Jonah ever understood what God was talking about. He was so blinded by bigotry that the notion that God stands ready to forgive all who repent and call upon him was preposterous.
With our numbers and our technology, we are moving rapidly toward a global civilization. Some of the institutions of that civilization have alreay appeared--the UN, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, the international banking system. Surely the ideas of the book of Jonah must be part of this new civilization.
We are all Gods children. That Amazon Indian who still carries a bow and arrow and hunts for a livingis a child of God. That black African, dying of AIDS, is a child of God. That Afghan Moslem fundamentalist, who hates our guts, is still a child of God. And you and I are also children of God, and the sooner we realize this, the better off we are all going to be. The sooner we drop the stereotypes and stop putting down whole groups of people that we have never even met, the better off we are all going to be. The sooner we realize the value of every person on the face of this planet, the better off we are all going to be.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 9/20/01