By Ellen Sims
Texts: Jonah 3: 1-10; Mark 1: 14-20
Once a month our worship service is contemplative, marked by prayers offered in varied ways. Instead of a sermon, I offer a brief commentary or one more more scriptures. Below is my (slightly expanded) commentary I gave on the passage from Jonah followed by the description of our four prayer stations we used yesterday.
The Bible, as you know, isn’t a book. It’s a collection of books, a library, really, that includes different genre of literature: law and poetry, folk tales and letters, songs for worship and sayings of wisdom. To theologize responsibly about any of these writings requires that we know what genre we’re reading. We read the newspaper very differently than we read a poem or novel or instructions for installing computer software. We bring different expectations to these varied writings.
So what kind of “book” is Jonah? it’s a story. But what kind of story?
Some classify the brief book of Jonah as a “call” story—of which there are many in the Bible. Last Sunday we read the story about God calling the boy Samuel to become a prophet. The story of Jonah is certainly in this genre. God “calls” the understandably reluctant Jonah to travel to the notorious city of Nineveh and convince them to forsake their violent ways.
But Jonah might be categorized also as a humorous folktale. Jonah defies God’s command and hops a ship going in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. Soon a storm threatens to sink all onboard until Jonah jumps overboard to protect the other passengers from God’s wrath (so he supposes). God then dispatches a giant fish to save Jonah from drowning—the key plot point in the part of the story with which we’re familiar. How the fanciful details of a comedic plot capture our imagination! A large fish swallows Jonah and three days later regurgitates him onto dry land: slimy and smelly but safe! Word plays in the original Hebrew help emphasize the humor.[i]
The reading for today, however, picks up the story as God gives Jonah and Nineveh’s citizens one more chance to do the right thing. Having learned his lesson, Jonah travels at last to Nineveh, where he convinces the king to order ALL creatures, human and animal, to fast and wear sackcloth, so sorry are they for their sins. Every human and animal then dons sackcloth and refrains from eating a morsel of food. I’m picturing Nineveh’s contrite mice dressed up, as if by Disney or Pixar, in tiny outfits made of sackcloth, hands raised as they sing their high-pitched prayers of contrition. Nineveh is spared God’s wrath—thanks in part to repentant rodents. When I describe these details comically, I am not being sacrilegious. I am trying to stretch our appreciation for the range of styles and purposes of biblical literature.
Humor can convict us when other genre can’t. We take the Bible seriously when we pay attention to the different tones and voices and genre in scripture. That includes humor, which we find even in the teachings of Jesus. The Bible did not drop from Heaven in its present and uniform voice. And we can’t read it as a road map or science textbook or single document that coheres from start to finish. We can take the Bible seriously AND continue to find it revelatory for for faithful people when we understand its varied perspectives and voices and contexts. We read the bible seriously even as we appreciate instances of humor. This serious reading of comedy helps us get our ethical bearings and opens us to the Spirit’s guidance. Archaic words and world views can be translated into our own context to shed light for us today.
The Jonah story is funny and still Holy Writ. Once we appreciate the story’s humor, we can either feel stuck with just fanciful silliness—or go on to appreciate themes of God’s persistent mercy (even though it competes with the idea of a wrathful deity). We can accept more readily God’s call to cross geographical boundaries to care about those we’ve labeled enemy. Maybe laughter is a way to break down our defenses and let down our guard at the walls built by prejudice.
Even so, comical or serious words can only hint at the things of God. Sometimes we do well to be wordless before God, which is why we spend time in silence in this contemplative service. Sometimes we do well to choose expansive words of poetry and ask questions rather than make declarative assertions. Our next hymn, an imagistic prayer, offers questions and merely hints at meaning with allusions and metaphor. It begins:
“God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe? How does the creature say Praise?” [ii]
PRAYERING IN VARIED WAYS
Station 1. Alluding to the biblical story of Jonah, American poet Carl Sandberg said he “was swallowed one time deep in the dark/ And came out alive after all.” Have you ever experienced that feeling? Using crayons and paper provided, color a picture that captures that “deep in the dark” situation when you felt you were “being swallowed” by something overwhelming. Or color how you felt coming out of that situation “alive after all.” Later, if you wish, you may share your picture or your memory with us.
Station 2. Write in the fish on the left side of the flipchart paper something that you used to “fish for” (pursue as valuable) but no longer consider it so important. Write in the fish on the right side of the flipchart something you are now trying to “fish for,” believing it has deep value for you and others.
Station 3. The repentant people of Ninevah “proclaimed a fast” to demonstrate their sorrow. But at the table of the Lord it’s always a feast, and always it’s shared with any and all. Remember how Jesus took simple elements and transformed them into lessons and promises. Pray now for this world with all its beauty and heartache. Take bread, dip it into the common cup, eat, and remember that Jesus gave himself in order to show us how to glimpse and usher in the kin*dom of God.
Station 4. Let your prayers be your first offering to God. Then give, as you are able, to the work of God through this church. Turn loose of something in your life that is not of ultimate importance so that you can fish for what matters most.
[i] For a discussion of the puns in the original Hebrew and additional analysis of Jonah as comedy, see Whedbee, J. William. “Jonah and the Joke” in The Bible and the Comic Vision. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
[ii] Vajda, Jaroslav J. “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.”