Forgiving Ninevah

Jonah 3:10–4:11; Philippians 1:21–30, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on September 24, 2023

How can you not love the story of Jonah? It’s one of the Bible’s Greatest Hits, and for good reason: God is the main character, of course, but a complicated one, who alternates between threats of destruction and forgiveness. There’s Ninevah, a bad guy turned good. Then there’s Jonah, who in this story may fit more comfortably into an old Bugs Bunny cartoon than the Bible, the way he hightails it in the opposite direction when God calls his name, falls asleep during a terrible storm in the hold of his getaway boat, then finds the courage to save the crew of the ship by launching himself over the railing into the sea only to be swallowed whole by a giant fish! Ultimately, Jonah gets spit out onto the beach by said giant fish—after apologizing to God with a prayer of thanksgiving from the tummy of the fish. He dusts the sand and fish-stuff off of his robe, strides into Ninevah, tells the city to stop doing bad stuff within 40 days or else, and within one day they do just that. And, good to God’s word, God forgives Ninevah of its transgressions and all the people (and animals) are saved, thanks to Jonah. Cue the credits and the triumphant music. What’s not to love about that story? There’s slapstick comedy, complex characters, and a happy ending. Right?

Well. Just like how sometimes those hit radio (or Spotify playlist) songs are pulled from albums with more complicated, less poppy story arcs, there’s another track after this Bible hit from Jonah, and it’s our reading for the week.

After his performance as the most successful prophet of all time, one might expect that Jonah would be pretty excited about Ninevah’s sudden repentance. After all, God asked him to deliver a message, he did (even though he didn’t want to), and the message was received. The bad guys stopped being bad. Job well done. But Jonah’s not excited. According to the text, “this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (4:1-3)’” Are we to take Jonah at his word here? Where does this reaction to his own success come from?

Jonah appears in one other place in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Kings, as a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel during roughly the 8th Century BCE, at a time when Assyria was Israel’s biggest, most dangerous foe. In fact, in 722 BCE Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and sent its people into exile. Ninevah was Assyria’s capitol. So that’s a plot point that might be lost on us 2,000 years later. Second, scholars believe that the Book of Jonah was written during the period after Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians and its elites exiled. So the author, to the best of our understanding, wrote the Book of Jonah from Babylon as fan fiction, pulling a minor character from history to explore a hypothetical scenario where Israel’s biggest enemy repents and earns God’s forgiveness. The author writes from his or her own context as a religious leader exiled by another mighty enemy.

When you look under the surface, this story gets complicated! It becomes a meta narrative of soul searching about what it means to be a prophet, what it means to believe in a God who lets God’s covenanted people be conquered and exiled twice in a span of two centuries. And as for the saving of those 120,000 Ninevites at the end of the reading? Those folks killed or displaced the ancestors of the author and those who would have first heard the story. To those folks, this was not simply a tall tale; these characters were very real.

In a similar way, it’s important to understand the historical context behind Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Remember that Paul wrote this letter to his friends from a Roman jail. And in the letter, we learn that the church in Philippi is also in danger on account of their activities.

Paul’s opening line in today’s reading is dense: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (1:21)” Living is Christ—and dying is gain. Sitting with his friend Timothy in a cell far from his people, imprisoned for calling on folks to care for others like Jesus did, rather than protect their own interests as they were taught by Roman culture to do, Paul contemplates his own death. His faith tells him that when he dies he will be “clothed with our heavenly dwelling,” as he writes in 2 Corinthians (5:2). The outcome of death is known, and it is gain compared to our current troubles. But living . . . living is Christ. “I am hard pressed between the two,” Paul writes. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. (1:23-26)”

To die is to be with Christ, to live is to be in Christ, in Paul’s language. In Christ: of one mind with Jesus, following him down a path of embodied communal care. Scholar Julia Lambert Fogg describes it this way:

To think like Christ is to look to the concerns of the other. Thus the Christian process of discernment, according to Paul, is not about one’s own ‘desires,’ but rather about what one’s friends need most in Christ.[1]

It’s two examples of faithful people, faithful communities trying to make meaning out of their pressing reality in the pit of persecution, these passages from Jonah and Paul. And though their formats and writing styles differ, both end up in the same place: that God desires us to live in deep connection. It’s a way of living that was countercultural first in Jonah’s time then in Paul’s time, and it’s countercultural in our time. White supremacist, patriarchal culture teaches self-sufficiency as the highest aspiration, us vs. them as the worldview foundation leading to safety for ourselves and for our families. When anxiety rises up, we circle the wagons, we justify our own positions and actions. Our culturally programmed response is to pull back.

But is that clenching response the path to true safety? Maybe in the short term, but we all know—although we might tell ourselves otherwise—that possessions, retirement accounts, and professional identities can’t comfort you when catastrophe visits. Only the love of community—of neighbors who water the plants and feed the dog while you’re in crisis, of colleagues who check in on you after that passing comment about your brother’s health—only people who extend themselves past their own interests and show compassion for others who need it can provide the true safety that comes from the knowledge that, whatever happens, you are not alone. Those folks who you can picture would be there for you in your time of need, those are the ones in Christ.

In his essay, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” Martin Luther King, Jr. draws a distinction still fundamentally relevant to us in progressive Christian spaces today. He wrote, 

You may give your goods to feed the poor, you may bestow great gifts to charity, and you may tower high in philanthropy, but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilled blood may be a symbol of honor for generations unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s supreme heroes; but even so, if you have not love, your blood is spilled in vain.[2]

Love like King asks us to act out requires proximity, vulnerability, messy relationship. Writing a check, liking a post, signing a petition—these are good and worthy and necessary acts. But as King reminds us, Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew Bible writers called us to more.

Today at sunset begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, celebrated ten days after Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year—the day when the births of Adam and Eve are celebrated. It’s a season meant to clean the slate through repentance, for turning back towards those who we have wronged, and back to God, and asking for forgiveness for the times that our actions strained or broke human and divine relationship. As repentance features prominently in the Book of Jonah, it is traditionally read in Yom Kippur observances. And in those observances, what is celebrated is how, in the “what if” world of Jonah, the historical persecutor of the Jewish people, not Jonah, changed. Ninevah listened, admitted to God the harm their actions had caused, and they repented.

Preparing for this sermon, I’ve been thinking about where I place myself in these two scriptural passages, and how they relate to this month’s theme of forgiveness in the lectionary readings. And while I can identify the ways that I keep my distance from the flow of God’s love like Jonah in his booth—through my own introversion and laziness, the busyness that characterizes our culture, fear of rejection, the demands of parenthood—what feels most raw and relevant is what happens when I think of myself as Ninevah. Because I—we—are residents of today’s empire. Assyria laid siege to Jonah’s people, but it is our lineage that conquered and scattered the indigenous people who first lived on this land. It is our lineage that took native children from their families in order to “integrate” them into our culture. 

It is also the lineage that has raised, loved, and nurtured me, and that I have spent the last three years training to step more fully into. My lineage.

Thanks to the Jonah story, I engage in the thought experiment of what would happen if the United States—all of its citizens at one time, Nineveh style—repented to God in full humility, sorrow, and trembling for the harm piled onto the world’s black and brown bodies by our hands. Friends, when I let myself go there, I yearn for that vision, because I yearn for our reconciled relationship and true belonging with all humanity, with all creation. And I believe that that belonging can only come if we seek forgiveness for our lineage’s transgressions and keep seeking forgiveness and keep seeking forgiveness.

May this Yom Kippur bless our Jewish siblings with all fullness of God’s grace. May this church community find ways to repent for the times its lineage has broken relationships. And may our forgiveness-seeking open us ever more fully to loving relationship with the other, to life in Christ. May it be so.

[1] Julia Lambert Fogg, “Philippians,” in The Letters and Legacy of Paul, ed. Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sanchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 547.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 153.