A Divine Change of Mind - A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (Jonah 3)

Jonah Preaching at Nineveh - John Martin

Jonah 3:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 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. 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.” 
10 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.
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                Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He wanted to have nothing to do with Nineveh. As far as he was concerned, it was an evil empire that deserved whatever came its way. When God called him to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s judgment, he ran away. In fact, he got on the first boat out of town, and headed in the opposite direction. You can run, but can’t hide, and God had other ideas. It seems that those other ideas included having Jonah spend some time in the belly of a fish. With no other choice, Jonah gave in and headed off to Nineveh, where he went around preaching gloom and doom to the people who lived in this city he detested.

                Jonah represents a particular kind of person. He has very definite views of other people, and he isn’t open to change. We could call him a xenophobe. He hates foreigners, at least foreigners who live in Nineveh. Perhaps he had good reason. While reference here is to the city of Nineveh and not to the Assyrian Empire (Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire), readers of Jonah likely made the connection. Assyria was the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and laid siege to Jerusalem. This was one of the more brutal empires of the ancient world. You can understand that some people had negative feelings about Nineveh.

                The reading from the Hebrew Bible for the Third Sunday of Epiphany (Year B) invites us to consider the third chapter of Jonah. In this chapter we read that Jonah relents, and goes to Nineveh. He begins a three-day journey across the city (it’s a large city), and he declares: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” There’s no ambiguity here. There’s no word of grace. There’s no call for repentance. Just a pronouncement of judgment. It’s all that Jonah could muster, and maybe it’s all that Yahweh offered. The offer of forty days, appears to be simply an opportunity to “put the fear of God” into this people. Jonah’s job is simply to tell the people that God had deemed them of no earthly value, and would be summarily dealt with. There is only one hitch in this plan. The people of Nineveh hear the word of judgment, and not only do they believe the message, but they act on it. They put on sackcloth and ashes, signs of mourning and repentance, hoping that God will heed their act of repentance and treat them with grace. Not only do they respond with repentance, but Jonah only got to make his proclamation of gloom and doom for one day. Apparently, word spread quickly across the city. Most assuredly Jonah was frustrated. If he was going to come all this way, he wanted to have the pleasure of letting the whole city know that they were doomed. He wanted to see the fear in their eyes.  That they repented before he got that chance took all the fun out of the journey.

                For some reason the creators of the lectionary chose to eliminate verses 6-9, which involve the response of the king to Jonah’s preaching. From the passage it appears that the king followed the people rather than lead them. His proclamation simply reinforced the efforts of the people who were already acting in repentance.  His reasoning is simple” “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (vs. 9). This response is done in the hope, though without assurance, that God can change, that God will see this change of heart and action, and respond with grace and mercy. Jonah might not have that in his heart, but perhaps Yahweh might.

                Here’s the key—in verse 10, we’re told that God heard their change of heart and behavior, and relented. Yes, the mind of God can be changed—that’s the message that emerges here. Now, this is all the story we’ll get from this round of the lectionary. God relents and shows mercy. But as the story goes on, we learn that Jonah isn’t at all happy with this. In fact, Jonah will go on to sulk, because he looked like a fool. He proclaimed destruction, and God showed mercy. It wasn’t supposed to work that way.

                How then do we hear this message today? Jonah offers the picture of an ethnocentric figure, who believed that his nation’s greatness depended on the destruction of another. Now, if we take Jonah at face value, Nineveh was an evil place, but it was also a receptive place. We live in a time when there is a strong pull back towards isolation and ethnocentrism. We see it in Europe and in the United States. Fear of the foreigner is rampant. It is not uncommon to hear people, including people who claim to follow Jesus, call for the nuking of enemies. We heard it after 9-11, and it hasn’t gone away.

                Perhaps the story of Jonah can give us an opportunity to open our eyes to God’s grace and mercy—not only on the others, but on ourselves as well. Perhaps we too need to repent and seek forgiveness for what is on our hearts!

Whether or not it was the intention of the author of this story—and most scholars assume this a fictional story, and not the account of an actual event—this story does offer up a vision of a relational God. God responds to our actions. Jonah preached. The people responded. God relented and chose not to follow through with the judgment.  Bruce Epperly is one who understands this relationality. In his little book on Jonah, he writes:
While this does not constitute a complete theology, God’s response tells us something important about God’s relationship to history and our daily lives: The future is not predestined nor is God’s plan or knowledge eternal and unchanging. God is alive, historical, and constantly able to change to adapt to a changing world or initiate new saving possibilities. God’s love is non-negotiable, but love’s expressions are always relative to time and place. [Epperly, Jonah: When God Changes. (Kindle Location 350-353). Energion Publications.]

                As we live in challenging times, it is good to hear a word like this. We needn’t be prophets of Jonah’s ilk, but as one who preaches, it is good to know that a word might be heard that will change realities!  It is also good to know (believe in) a relational God, who isn’t all locked up in predetermined plans for us. 

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