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The Prophet Unwilling – 6/1/2014

The centerpiece of our music service this year is an oratorio entitled “Prophet Unwilling,” composed by David Wehr. The subject of the piece is the story of Jonah, from the Hebrew bible as we’ll hear when the music begins in just a few minutes. There was a moment this week when I was decidedly not working – I was doing the exact opposite, which is to say, I was reading Facebook. And entirely by coincidence, I came across a little story about the story of Jonah. Never one to turn down homiletical assistance from circumstance of serendipity, I’ll share it with you now:

Two children were talking on the playground. One of them had just been learning about whales in school and wanted to share this new information with the other. “Whales have huge mouths, but very small throats, so they can only eat very small animals.” The second child pointed out that that can’t be right, because Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The first child insisted that this was anatomically impossible, they argued back and forth for some time. Finally, the second child declared, “When I get to heaven, I’ll just ask Jonah myself.”

“What if Jonah went to hell?” the first child asked.

“Well then, you can ask him yourself.”

Now, I can spot at least three crucial mistakes in this joke – any guesses as to which? The first one is a gimme – the idea of hell as a future place of torment where bad people go when they die is just bad theology that imagines God as the universe’s torturer-in-chief. The second mistake is the whole argument about whales. In the book of Jonah, he isn’t swallowed by a whale at all: he’s swallowed by a giant fish. But the third mistake is even larger than this: it is the mistake of assuming that the bible can only be read as a history, as an account of things that actually happened. This is a really common mistake. It’s argued for by biblical-literalists, who say that every story and event contained in the bible has to have happened just as it says, but it’s also argued just as strongly by people who are anti-religious. They still argue that the bible is a history, just a bad one, full of things that didn’t actually happen – so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, the bible is a complex anthology of a lot of different genres or types of writing. The Psalms, for instance, are a hymnal: they’re collections of religious poetry which are meant to be sung by groups of people as an act of worship. The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon is a piece of sensual and even erotic poetry, expressing the love and longing between two people. Over time, it has been reinterpreted into an expression of love and longing between human beings and the Divine. The many books of the Hebrew bible that are collectively called the prophets or Nevi’im are a genre unto themselves. There’s a certain familiar pattern that almost all of the stories follow. Think about a western – when you pick up a western novel, there are some things you expect. There’s trouble and injustice on the edge of civilization. Then, a stranger comes to town. There’s a gunfight. And the hero rides off into the sunset. You can have a western that’s entirely fictional or you can have one that’s based on historical figures, but it still tends to take on this same rough shape.

It’s the same thing with the prophets. They receive a call from God. They’re sent on a mission – for most of its history ancient Israel was divided into two kingdoms, and most of the prophets are sent from the northern kingdom to the southern kingdom, or vice versa. They deliver a message of warning, that the people should mend their ways to avoid a terrible fate. And usually, their audience doesn’t heed that warning, but we, in reading the book, become the new audience and have a new chance to change our ways and correct our own errors. The story of Jonah is considered one of the prophetic books, but it is actually a satire of the prophetic genre. It’s a joke. I’ll refresh you on the story if it’s a little fuzzy for you:

Jonah receives the call from God, but unlike the other prophets, his mission lies outside of ancient Israel. He’s sent to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the neighboring super-power, where they speak a different language and worship different gods and have vast armies that constantly threaten his own country. Jonah here’s this command to go east to the city of Nineveh – in present-day Iraq, and immediately flees to the west, gets on a boat, and sets off for Tarshish, in current-day Spain. He runs away from his calling, but he can’t escape it. A storm seizes the boat, Jonah admits it must because he is refusing his mission, and he is flung overboard by the crew, and swallowed by a giant fish. Around the time when the story is set, Nineveh was the largest city in the world; its name probably means something like, “the place of the fish”: running from one giant fish, Jonah is swallowed by another.

The real comedy, though, comes when he relents, and is vomited back up onto dry land, and goes to complete his mission to Nineveh. He warns them to repent of their injustice, lest they be destroyed – something he does not want to do. They are his enemies, and he wants them to continue their iniquity so that they will be wiped off of the map. The response is spectacular, and completely different from the expected outcome in a prophetic story. As one, the whole city hears Jonah’s message and resolves to follow it. The entire population dresses in a state of mourning, refusing to eat, and praying ceaselessly for mercy. Not only the humans, but even the animals. Picture a dog – I’m going to go with a Jack Russell terrier for mine – dressed in a black cloak, with a pillbox hat, and a gauzy black veil over its eyes. That is roughly as ridiculous as the image that is painted at the conclusion of Jonah’s story.

          Now, just because it is a joke, does not mean that it does not also have something serious and meaningful to say. Jonah is a story about knowing what is right and refusing to do it, not even out of fear, but out of selfishness and prejudice and a lack of loving-kindness. It is about the truth that when the heart knows what justice looks like, but the will cannot stir the hands to work for it, the soul grows as tormented as if we had been swallowed up by a sea monster. Yet, in every moment, we have the opportunity to turn back in the right direction, and march on towards Nineveh.

Herbert Richards, the lyricist of this piece, provided an introduction to it. I’ll read it now with some slight adjustments towards inclusive language:

Jonah, a prophet of torment, a soul of doubt, a messenger of change and now a harbinger of hope, reflects the importance of character revealed in indecision, a weakness so characteristic of modern [humans]. Jonah proved himself selfish but honest; fearful but sincere. Jonah wanted his God, but without paying the price required in the Discipleship of God. Jonah wanted peace without paying the price of peace. In fact, his life is the record of what Jonah wanted…versus what God needed…

          Modern [humanity] hears the same words: “ON TO NINEVEH, ON TO NINEVEH”. Will [we] say: “Yes, [I come]!”? Or will [we] cry out: “NAY, NAY, I STAY.”? Tarshish City represents middle-of-the-road comfort. Nineveh represents a tragic need, the kind of need no true servant of [the Good] dare ignore, lest [we] commit a sin of omission.


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