The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Father Frank continued:
Jonah is a breathtakingly self-interested person. He hears God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh, and he runs. That running gets him thrown overboard in a storm, swallowed by a large sea-creature, and vomited onto a beach. At this point, and as uncharacteristically faithful of him as it is, Jonah ceases his vincible, studied ignorance. He hears and obeys God, thanks Him for deliverance from the storm, but goes to Nineveh reluctantly, his mind changed while his heart is not. Jonah’s heart remains true to his willful, arrogant nature- often wrong but never in doubt. We err to assume that Jonah’s obedience in this instance signals a fundamental shift in his character.
In spite of himself, Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh is wildly successful; the people of Nineveh hear the condemnation pronounced by God’s prophet Jonah, and they repent. They hear the prophet’s message. People who need prophets are generally people who won’t hear prophets very well; prophetic messages typically are doomed to failure by the people to whom, and the circumstances in which, they are preached. Not so here- Jonah is remarkable among prophets for the success of his preaching. The people of Nineveh respond to God’s prophetically announced warning. And God does exactly what He has implied all along that He will do; God changes His mind about Nineveh’s future.
This changed mind is not God being weak or fickle. This changed mind shows God doing the logical thing. Prophecies are formulaic- they follow an “if A, then B” structure that notes present sin and says that the noted sin, un-repented, will result in a prophetically forewarned, dire consequence. We do hold out the possibility that any course other than the dire consequence will follow, so when prophetic preaching works, we’re flummoxed- baffled- and in Jonah’s case childishly annoyed. The “if A” (“if you don’t stop this”) does in fact produce a change in Nineveh’s case. It never occurred to Jonah (or us) that such a thing might happen; we’re unprepared for this Good News.
This is not God changing His mind; this is God responding to human beings changing their minds. At Nineveh, human hearts and minds are moved and changed, and the consequences elucidated in Jonah’s prophetic ministry are rendered irrelevant by the emergent righteousness of transformed human beings. So God delivers on the prophetic promise from a direction we rarely imagine- the people do right, and God responds by not doing them ill. It’s not a changed mind on His part, rather it is God responding to a human behavior we see so rarely (repentance) that when it happens we misperceive it, and think God weak or wrong.
All of this bears directly on our presuppositions and opinions of people. We believe ourselves to be so exquisitely prescient that we cannot countenance being in error in our assessments of people and situations. Jonah certainly proves that- he looks just like us, and we like him. Our opinions are so fixed that we don’t even really hear or see at first that something or someone has changed. When we do hear and see, we don’t believe it. I think much of our anger in such moments has to do not with God’s mercy, but instead has to do with our frustration with ourselves- we don’t like having our judgments proven wrong, and our chagrin makes us mean.
Things are rarely as they seem; God responds lovingly to repentant human beings living amended lives. The question is not can we do the same, but will we?
Love you. See you in Church.