God would nurture His people in the knowledge that imperfect human beings can enjoy a relationship with God, not through what they do, but through His charity (or grace) that accepts those who turn from all other gods and the sin to which that leads and believe (or trust) in Him.
The people in question were the Hebrews, also known as the Israelites, and sometimes the Jews. Among the facets of this people's history, as recorded in the Old Testament, is the internal war--fought out among themselves and within themselves--over just what their status as God's chosen people meant. Was their chosenness the end of the story or had God chosen them not just to save them from sin and death, but for the sake of the world?
Two stories I believe to be true, each told in their own short books in the Old Testament, gave the ancient Hebrews the answer to that question, if they dared to militate against the very human impulse to xenophobia. They're two of my favorite Bible stories and they have decided implications for God's people in the Church today.
The first one is that of Jonah. To call Jonah a reluctant prophet would be an understatement. But his story, or at least one dramatic incident from his life, is told--with remarkable economy--in the Old Testament. Tradition has placed it among the books of the prophets, not because Jonah issued some ringing oracle from God. His sermon, if you want to call it that, was composed of one line. One measly line, delivered without conviction; delivered, in fact, with the hope that his listeners would not respond positively. Because he hated them.
What happened? God told Jonah to go a huge city of the ancient world, Nineveh, the capital city of the evil empire of Assyria, and tell them that their great, pervasive sin had earned God's anger and that they were going to be destroyed. But there were a few problems with God's call, as Jonah saw it.
First, as I mentioned, Jonah hated the Ninevites. Like Adrian Monk hates germs. Like Indiana Jones hates snakes. Like Kim Jung Il hates electricity, running water, and food for his people. Like the most horrible racist hates people of another race. Jonah hated the Ninevites.
Second, he knew the character of God. He knew that God never told people about their sins just to leave them wallowing in their alienation from God. Sin separates people from God. But God wants to build bridges so that our relationship with Him can be restored and we can gain full access to His power and life surging through us. God had good intentions for the Ninevites and Jonah didn't like that a bit.
The bottom line is that Jonah was afraid. Not afraid of the Ninevites or what they might do to him. Jonah was afraid that God would give his mission to Nineveh success, that he would give the Ninevites God's message, and that, without so much as a promise from God, renounce their sins, turn to God for forgiveness, and that God would actually forgive them. Jonah didn't want God to touch Nineveh with His love, he wanted God to kill the Ninevites.
So, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah took off for the Mediterranean. Maybe if he took a cruise, God would either forget about this whole crazy mission of mercy or get someone else to do it. But Jonah forgot an important fact that I've emphasized on this blog time and again: Either God gets His way or God gets His way.
Next comes the most spectacular and for some people, difficult to accept, incidents in Jonah's story. While Jonah was on board the ship, a fierce storm rocked it. It was so bad that all passengers and hands began to wonder which of them had ticked off one of the many deities of the ancient world.
Jonah said, "It was me. I made the one true God of the world angry." He said that the only sensible solution was to toss him into the drink. The others were reluctant to do this at first. After all, this storm seemed to prove that Jonah was a fairly important figure; how would Jonah's deity feel about his being deliberately drowned? "You've got no choice," Jonah essentially told them. They threw him overboard and, in an instant, the sea was calm.
But what about Jonah? You need to know that nothing was viewed with greater terror by the ancient Israelites than the sea. The deep was a place of chaos and terror, in their minds. It was a place of death and evil, far from the light and presence of God. The first creation account in Genesis says that there was a primordial soup--a deep, thrashing, stormy, raging sea--over which God's Spirit moved to bring life and order into being. The sea, they thought, was the domain of monsters like the leviathan that threatened to engorge hapless travelers. Countless centuries later, when Jesus promised His first followers that they would be "fishers of people," it was a commission to lovingly troll the dark places of the world in order to scoop people out of sin and certain death into the presence of a Savior Who could give them new life.
So, Jonah may have been terrified. His terror was only beginning though. One of those big sea creatures came along and swallowed him whole.
There, in the belly of a fish, Jonah turned to God, asking for forgiveness. Miraculously, God had the fish vomit Jonah onto shore. And guess where he landed? Near Nineveh, the capital city of the hated Assyrians.
What Jonah must have looked like, his skin bleached white by the fish's stomach juices, or smelled like, is something I prefer not imagining. But it may be that his appearance and his smell gave credibility to his simple sermon: "Yet forty days and Ninebeh shall be overthrown."
What happened next is the secret envy of anyone who preaches God's Word:
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes [a sign of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin, and turning to God]. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.Without any guarantees of forgiveness or of being spared being overthrown, the Ninevites repudiated their sin and humbled themselves before God.
But, as I said, Jonah didn't like this scenario. "I knew this would happen," Jonah told God and has a hissy fit.
"...That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”Amazingly, God overlooked this temper tantrum...and didn't comply with Jonah's request, however tempting it may have been.
Instead he--and all of us--are left to witness the fact that God cares about all people. God wants all people to renounce their sin and come to Him. That's why Jesus would later come to the world to offer new life to everyone who believes in Him. This is the lesson of Jonah no matter if you think it's factual or not. It's a comforting--and a challenging--lesson.
I hope to tell the second story on this Foreigners Allowed theme in my next installment. There, I intend to unpack more of the implications of the two stories.
[Here are links to the four previous installments in this series:
David and the Well at Bethlehem
The Hebrew Midwives
[You can easily read the book of Jonah in a few minutes. But don't do it. Take some time to savor it: Jonah, chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4]