Yoder-Short: What if Jonah came to us?

Dec 9, 2019 by

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After hearing a series of sermons on Jonah, I’ve started seeing this reluctant prophet in unexpected places.

Jane Yoder-Short

Yoder-Short

Jonah used to be safely confined to a wooden puzzle at my Aunt Ruth’s. You removed the big fish parts and Jonah would appear.

These days I see Jonah hiding among indigenous protesters next to an oil pipeline.

I hear Jonah’s call for repentance in the aftermath of police killings.

I understand Jonah’s reluctance to tolerate undeserved grace as border agents separate tearful families.

Can empires change?

Let’s back up and look again at Jonah.

We can easily think of Jonah as stubborn and disobedient. We can overlook the craziness of what God is asking Jonah to do. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, a brutal warring empire.

Jonah and the people he loved are victims of Assyria’s imperial oppression. Why would he want to see them redeemed?

Would we go into the territory of an enemy that is oppressing our nation and genuinely call and hope for their repentance?

Lutheran pastor Niveen Sarras helps us see Jonah as an oppressed minority person asking a ruthless, heartless, empire to repent. Sarras writes from a Palestinian perspective. She enables us to see that Yahweh is putting Jonah in a problematic and thorny situation. Jonah is asked to go not only to his enemies but to the very oppressors of Israel. It’s like a Palestinian being asked to go to the state of Israel and speak against her sins.

Seeing through the eyes of the oppressed, we begin to understand why Jonah hopes for the fall of Nineveh. When someone treats us cruelly or treats the people we love harshly, we rarely cheer for their grace-filled conversion.

How might Jonah feel when the Ninevites put on sackcloth and repent? Does he doubt their sincerity? Does he want more than sackcloth? What about a guaranteed halt to plundering Israel’s grain? What about destroying military bows and pounding swords into plowshares? What about reparations to cover past damages?

Would a Native American Jonah doubt our repentance? Sure, we’re sorry for our historical treatment of indigenous people, but that was the past. Does our sackcloth repentance lead us to care about people and indigenous holy ground more than our pipelines and oil supply?

Would we repent if Jonah came as a Salvadoran mother whose daughter died while detained by border security? In the ’80s, our nation funded El Salvador’s “dirty war.” The ripples continue to shape the prevalence of violence in that country. Why would a Salvadoran Jonah care about the redemption of people in Washington, D.C.?

God puts things in perspective by providing a sulking Jonah with a bush for shade. The bush is attacked by a worm and withers. Jonah cares passionately about the dead bush. If Jonah can care about a dead bush, why not care about Nineveh?

How do we choose what we care about? How do self-interests affect our concerns?

The Jonah story reminds us that God can bring a message through oppressed outsiders like Jonah. God can choose the marginalized to bring a message of hope. The Jonah story reminds us that God cares for all people, even enemies.

The story of Jonah empowers the underdogs to bravely call for repentance. The story also calls us to put on sackcloth and ashes and change our ways.

Lucky for us, God is a gracious and merciful God (Jonah 4:1). God wants all people to flourish. Let’s find ways to hear the Jonahs among us. Let’s find ways to wear sackcloth and ashes with integrity. Let’s keep dreaming of true repentance on all sides.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.


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