A reflection on Jonah 3:1-5, By Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig
In my day job as a psychotherapist, I often have the opportunity to hear people’s stories, to sit with them while they puzzle out and try to make sense of the things that happen, the directions things take, and often to try to answer those most puzzling of questions about the “why” of things in their lives.
Recently I was having a conversation with one of my clients who is about to begin school in order to follow her dream of becoming an artist and painter. I asked her how she had come to know that this was what she wanted to do with her life. She said, “Well, you know, I was going through a really bad time in my life, and for some reason I had this urge to draw and paint. At first it was just to get through it, a part of the healing process. As I started feeling better, I realized that this was more than just therapy for me, it went much deeper somehow and I just had this sense that it was right, like it was something I was just meant to do.” Her journey forward from that day has not been without obstacles. This is in fact the “third time” attempt to begin her studies that she is hoping will be the charm. One earlier effort had to be abandoned for financial reasons, and even this enrollment has been postponed. But I believe that she will persevere and follow what seems to be a clear call on her life.
Scripture is full of stories about people who have some experience of a sense of being called to something. In the stories, in a moment in time, someone is given the opportunity to make a choice that, whether they know it or not, will change their lives forever. We may be able to think about such moments in our own lives, too. Times when we somehow felt pulled or drawn in one way or another…to choose this person, this job, this place over that one.
We may or may not think about these moments as having anything to do with “being called.” Perhaps we ask (in the language of that great spiritual director’s question), “where is God in all of this,” or maybe that doesn’t even occur to us. And even when we may have some sense that God is in the mix here, we may not respond with whole-hearted acceptance or enthusiasm. Our response might be more like…”Um, no thanks”…. Or “Oh, God, I don’t think you mean me….surely you must be mistaken.” Or, “God….you must have me mixed up with someone who is truly suited for the task….someone brighter or better or stronger or holier.”
Truth be told, most of us are much more Jonah than Simon and Andrew and James and John when it comes to feeling called by God. We are much more likely to be on the next boat heading off in the other direction, than we are to drop everything in response to an invitation to “come and follow me.” We don’t feel worthy. We don’t feel ready. Or we just plain don’t want to. We aren’t inclined to drop or add anything, to take a risk. Life is fine just as it is, and who needs the complication!
Jonah was called by God to go save people he did not like from complete and total destruction. Imagine that if you can. Call up in your mind someone who has hurt you or someone you love. Or maybe just someone who is so foreign to you, so “other” that you cannot imagine that you could ever have anything to say to them that would matter or even make sense. And you get this task…this “call” that says go tell this person something. And not just any message, but one that you are pretty sure is not going be good news for them. Like the message that God gave Jonah to deliver, “God asked me to tell you that you need to repent or you and your entire country will be destroyed in forty days.” Well, of course Jonah tries everything NOT to do this task, including boarding a ship going in the opposite direction. But in the end, after being accused of being responsible for the near wreck of the ship, and spending some time cooling his heels in the belly of a whale, Jonah does follow God’s call and finds himself delivering the prophetic message heard in this morning’s Old testament reading….”Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Now the fact that this was heard and taken seriously may have had a whole lot more to do with God than it did with the messenger, Jonah, but it took and everyone did repent, and God did not destroy Nineveh. There is another piece of the story that we did not hear today that tells us more about Jonah’s response to God’s decision to spare the Ninevites. You might think that Jonah would be pleased that his prophetic message was heeded, and all ended well, but this was not the case. Actually Jonah was quite upset with God about this change of mind and heart that spared these, in his mind at least, awful people. God was not seeing it his way, doing it his way.
Some commentators think that Jonah suspected all along that God was going to spare those horrible Ninevites, and that was why he wanted no part of this thing and fled in the first place. He hated these folks, and he wanted no part in their deliverance. God, was far more merciful than he could ever be towards his enemies, and initially he simply could not see himself as part of the plan. But God continues to work on him and by the end of the story Jonah appears to accept the radical notion that not even a Nineveh (or a Jonah) is beyond God’s compassion and ability to transform.
We all have our own stories of being called by God. Perhaps we have not named them as such. Perhaps we have not been ready to claim them. Perhaps when we hear God’s call, we are like Jonah, boarding the first boat for Tarshish, needing a little time out in the belly of the fish to reconsider things, and even then, still struggling to get our heads around God’s incredible capacity for love and compassion and forgiveness.
Whatever else we are called to in life, as Christians we are all called by baptism to be co-creators with God in building God’s kingdom. We know that God desires that this is a kingdom of mercy and justice, peace and compassion. We know that we are called to love God and love our neighbors, especially those we feel we might have nothing to say to, nothing in common with. We do not have to be perfect in our efforts. Those who went before surely were not!