Bible: Enough love to go around

May 21 — Jonah 3; May 28 — Jonah 4

May 8, 2017 by

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Perhaps we should start with enemies. Who is our fiercest enemy? A neighbor? Relative? Boss? Past or current president? Another nation?

Marlene Kropf

Kropf

We really can’t understand the story of Jonah unless we reckon with the reality that he was asked to proclaim a call to repentance to a city inhabited by his nation’s enemies. The people of Israel had suffered bitterly from constant attacks by Syrians on their northern border. According to 2 Kings 14, the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, had prophesied that Israel’s boundaries would be restored during the reign of Jereboam II. When the Syrian border raids came to an end, Jonah may have looked forward to a peaceful old age, secure among family and friends.

But the Almighty One had a larger vision.

That Jonah first tried to run away from God’s call to preach judgment to his enemies gives some indication of the depth of his aversion. Whether he feared or hated the Ninevites isn’t clear. But after a disastrous attempt to escape God’s presence, he found himself reluctantly walking across the city, warning the people, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

When the people of Nineveh heeded his warning and repented in sackcloth and ashes, Jonah might have congratulated himself on being such an effective revival preacher.

Instead, his anger was kindled by what appeared to be too much generosity on God’s part.

Disgusted and dejected, Jonah sat outside the city, licking his wounds. When the fast-growing bush that God provided for shade withered and died, Jonah’s anger and self-pity overwhelmed him. Trapped in either-or thinking and unable to get any sort of balcony-view perspective on what God might be up to, Jonah yielded to the demands of his outraged ego.

Though punishment-reward thinking is typical of young children, it is easy for adults to regress when under stress. The binary hard-wiring of our brains takes over, and we fall into judgment.

Like Jonah, we find it hard to comprehend the breadth and depth of God’s embracing love. We live by an unspoken yet powerful conviction that there really isn’t enough love to go around. For me to be good, you must be bad. For my church or race or nation to be worthy, yours must be unworthy. Fear drives us deep into a crowded place where there is only enough room for me and my kind. We fight to hang on to scraps of self-respect. We push others out of the way in order to preserve our shrunken way of life.

Jesus, of course, lived by a different vision. Jesus referred to the story of Jonah one day as he was teaching (Matt. 12:38-50). A paragraph later in the narrative, Matthew describes an encounter between Jesus and his biological family. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus says in response to their visit. What Matthew seems to emphasize is Jesus’ inclusive view-from-above, a vision that sees all humanity, not just one’s immediate family or near neighbors, as children of God.

Likewise, God reminds Jonah in the aftermath of Nineveh’s repentance, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” If we substitute America’s perceived “enemies,” such as Syria or Russia or North Korea, for Nineveh, we might get a sense of the emotional wallop Jonah felt upon receiving such a rebuke.

Most often it is the mystics, such as Frances of Assisi, Julian of Norwich or Hildegard of Bingen who glimpse the limitless quality of God’s generous love. Mechthild of Magdeburg, a 13th-century German mystic, offered a simple but comprehensive answer to the question, “How should one live?” “Live welcoming to all,” was her motto.

Among the Christians of India (and elsewhere) is a practice that daily reminds them of God’s encircling welcome. When people — friends or strangers — meet one another, they bow their heads toward each other, hold two palms together in front of the chest, and say, “Namaste.” With this act, they recognize the divine image in each person, saying, “I bow to the presence of God within you.”

Perhaps a first step toward learning from Jonah’s story would be to offer “Namaste,” inwardly or outwardly, to everyone we meet.

Marlene Kropf is retired from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA. She is the author of Faith Travels: Trusting God in Life’s Transitions (MennoMedia, 2016). She leads retreats, offers spiritual direction and enjoys hosting guests with her husband, Stanley, at their home in Port Townsend, Wash.


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