(Image of Assyrians torturing Israelites from Lachish, 6th century BCE
Turn That Motha Out
Jonah 3:1 The word of the FAITHFUL ONE came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, get yourself to Nineveh, that great city and proclaim to it the proclamation that I speak to you.” 4 Jonah… preached and said, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be turned upside down and inside out!” In other words, God said, “Turn that motha out.”
Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy and Mystery speak words of life, hope and healing through these words. Amen.
There are some religious folk who are sure that they know everything there is to know about God, and about you too. They don’t have to have ever met you or even seen you to be sure they know all they need to know about you. Their formula is very simple: If you are like them, God loves you. If you are different from them you need to convert and become like them. There is no room for disagreement or diversity.
Folk have been writing that our President is not a Christian because he used words no sitting president had ever used in public before, “lesbian, bisexual and transgender,” in his State of the Union address and even more, called for equitable, fair and just treatment for every person in this country – whether they are a citizen on not. I know what it is to not be counted as a Christian because I’m a feminist. I know what it is to not be counted as a priest or preacher because I’m a woman. I know what it is to not be counted as an American – or lets be honest – sometimes even human, because I’m black and to some folk, black lives don’t matter at all.
Anybody ever count you out? Try to place you beyond God’s love and care? Anybody ever try to say because you don’t look like, live like, love like, think like, pray like, play like they do that you don’t know God, God doesn’t love you, you aren’t part of God’s family? Any preachers tell you this God thing isn’t for people like you? There’re wrong, just like Jonah was wrong, intolerant and biased. And God has a problem with it.
Now, not everyone who preaches intolerance is hateful all the time. There are degrees of bigotry. There are folk who spew nothing but hate all the time, even claiming it’s in the name of God and, there are folk who would never use sexist or racist or homophobic language but then turn around and judge all Muslim people by the abhorrent acts of a few. Anyone have any family and friends you love dearly and one day you hear something racist or sexist or transphobic or Islamophobic or body shaming come out of their mouth?
God called Jonah to serve God by serving people who were different from him, people he didn’t think could be or should be saved. God sent Jonah to what would eventually become Iraq, Nineveh the capital of Assyria in during the time of Iron Age terrorists who were also torturing, beheading, raping and enslaving people. The Assyrians were infamous for peeling the skin off of people and then the flesh down to the bone while they were sill alive. They hadn’t started crucifying them yet but they did impale them on spikes and leave them hanging like slabs of meat.
The early audience for the book would have also known that the Assyrians were responsible for breaking the back of Israel, overrunning the northern monarchy and sending its people into exile and forced servitude. Because of the Assyrians, Israel was reduced from twelve legendary tribes to one with refugees from a couple more left to figure out how to be a nation without the majority of their people, land or resources. And God wanted Jonah to go and preach to them?
Jonah wouldn’t even go preach bad news to them. God told Jonah that Nineveh only had 40 days left in this world and then God was going to turn that motha out. Part of me is surprised that Jonah didn’t jump at the chance to preach bad news. You know there are a whole lot of bad news preachers out there. There is some bad news in the bible, words of judgment and hate. Sometimes those words are found – or placed – on the very lips of God. And there are folk who just love preaching the bad news. In fact there are some folk who don’t know that there is any good news in the bible because of all of those bad news preachers.
God’s message to Nineveh through Jonah sounds like bad news: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be turned out!” Nineveh, you’ve got some divine retribution coming, fire, brimstone and damnation. I mean what else could it be? If you think God is only a God of judgment or you think for God justice means judgment, what else could God have meant? Sometimes we forget the lesson of the psalmist: God is the Mother who loves us tenderly. The psalmist speaks of two kinds of love, the first is rachamim, the love that emanates from the divine womb; it is mother-love. Our Muslim kin share this understanding of God who is al rahman, the tender, loving motherly one. The second kind of love is chesed, deep, abiding, faithful love. But Jonah has no love for the people of Nineveh himself, so he can’t imagine that God does either.
People have a habit painting their biases into their portraits of God: gender biases, racial biases, sexual biases, family biases, religious biases, embodiment biases. All too often the folk painting the most biased portraits of God are religious leaders like Jonah. And because of the way the Israelites told their stories about their God, it is easy to find places in the text where God shares their biases. That’s why I talk about God in the text and God beyond the text. Because God is bigger, greater, more loving, more merciful, more inclusive than any text can portray. Verse 6 of our psalm (25) is a call to remembrance, for us and for God herself, that neither She nor we would forget how much she loves us:
Be mindful of your mother-love Tender-Loving God, and of your faithful love, for they have been from the time before time.
Deep down in his heart, Jonah knew God was not going to count out an entire community of people because they were different, because some among them were violent, because their leadership was bent on perpetual war, consumption and destruction – even if there are other passages in the bible that say just that! Jonah knew that God was a faithful, loving God. And it bothered him. He didn’t want God to love the Assyrians like God loved him and his folk. He even says so at the end of the book, when he tells God why he ran away: O please GRACIOUS ONE! Was this not my very word when I was still in my own land? That is why I tried to get in front of this and fled to Tarshish; because I knew that you are a gracious God and tender-loving, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and One who relents from punishing-with-evil. (Jonah 4:2)
I knew it! I knew you’d have me out there looking like a fool. I knew you wouldn’t go through with it. That’s why I didn’t want to go. I knew you would find some reason to forgive them. I know who you are. I know you are a God who loves and forgives. And I didn’t want any parts of that for them. They don’t deserve your forgiveness. They aren’t like us.
Jonah gives God a piece of his bigoted little mind. And God listens. Because God even cares for the bigots among us. There is no limit to God’s love. Jonah’s bias isn’t immediately apparent in the beginning of the story. You can’t always see what’s in a person’s heart. But you can hear it when they open their mouths. There are a whole lot of folk hiding a whole lot of ugliness under a whole lot of pretty. Jonah shows his true self when God calls him. [He receives what seems to be a reasonable prophetic call at the beginning of the book: Go and preach. Go and proclaim. It’s like God’s call to Nathan: Go and tell. It’s like God’s call to David’s other prophet, Gad: Go and say. To Isaiah: Go and say. To Jeremiah: Go and say. To Ezekiel: Prophesy. And all of them went. But Jonah.
Now, not every biblical prophet received that kind of call. The scriptures don’t show women prophets receiving “go and say…” calls. It just shows them doing the work. But not Jonah. He’s off looking for an all-male cruise instead.] God called Jonah to preach to the kind of folk Jonah thought God had no business with. And Jonah said no. Oh, he didn’t have the cojones to actually say the word “no” to God. He just waited until he thought God wasn’t looking and then ran in the opposite direction. In so doing, Jonah is teaching us his theology. He believes in a very small God with limited vision and a diminished capacity to love. What does your theology say about the God you worship?
Jonah goes to great lengths to get out of doing the thing God has called him to do. Does God want you to do something for someone else that you don’t want to do, for someone that you don’t want to do it for, perhaps because you don’t think they’re worthy of your time and gifts or God’s? How far are you willing to run to try and get away from God? God sent him west and he went east, at least according to one tradition.
As Jonah tells his whale of a tale about how he ran from God and God went to extremes that defied the laws of the natural world to just to pursue him, he makes the story all about himself. But deep down Jonah knows that God is not just chasing him down for his own good, but for the good of the people he can’t stand and that just burns him up. Jonah seems to have judged all the people of Nineveh by the most vicious among them who were vicious beyond all comparison. That’s how some biases work. Someone has a horrible experience and then generalizes it to every person that shares that race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, culture or religion. Jonah’s cruise was a nightmare. He finds himself overboard, cast away and smelling like fish-flavored vomit. Then God tells Jonah again to get up and get himself to Nineveh.
In calling Jonah a second time, God gives Jonah a second chance. A chance for him to grow beyond his biases. Jonah doesn’t have to stay the way he is, small, mean and bitter. He can become more like God, by caring for those for whom God cares, by loving those whom God loves, imitating the love the psalmist celebrates. God is generous when it comes to second chances. Jonah is not the only recipient of a second chance in this story. The entire city of Nineveh also got a second chance.
The sermon Jonah was called to preach, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be turned out,” was a warning, not a prediction. It didn’t come to pass. God told Jonah to say something would happen and it didn’t. There’s a lesson in here for us about the danger of taking every biblical text literally. We need to discern the truth in the text and know what is true may not be factual or historical but is still true.
In spite of Jonah, the people of Nineveh turned to God and they turned away from their evil ways. They had no guarantee or even expectation that what Jonah preached wouldn’t come to pass. They didn’t know the loving God the way the psalmist did. But they cried out anyway. God hears our cries, and not just ours; the cries of the ones we call “enemy” are as precious to God as are our own. We are all God’s children, with all our differences and beautiful diversity. The people of Nineveh didn’t become Jews like Jonah. They reached out to God as they were, and it was enough. The karmic scales were balanced. Instead of matching their violent ways with a divine response that was just as violent, God accepted the prayers and repentance of her Ninevite people in Assyria. And Jonah was furious.
At the end of the book when Jonah gives God a piece of his mind for not destroying Nineveh and making him look bad, God gets the final word; her last words to him and to us are:
Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)
Every single soul in that city was precious to God and not just the souls of human beings. The earth is God’s because She made it and all that is in it. And She loves it. That is the message of Jonah. Turn that motha out has become turn back to your mother. But unlike human mothers who sometimes abandon and betray, God’s love never fails. God sees us for who we really are and loves us in spite of ourselves.
In the Name of God who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love. Amen.
It was my pleasure to be interviewed for Rachel Held Evans’ Ask A… series. Please visit her site for the conversation.