Preached at Homedale Friends Community Church
May 6, 2012
Jonah has to have been the least favorite prophet for Jewish folks who every day thanked God they were not Gentiles. Jonah shows up running from God’s call to go to Assyria, to the city of Nineveh, to preach to non-Jews. His efforts to avoid God’s call land him in cold water and then in the belly of a fish. He personally repents, and God gives him another chance to obey. When he does, the people of Nineveh repent so thoroughly that even children and animals wear sackcloth and ashes. Jonah waits for God to destroy Nineveh, and instead God forgives them, to Jonah’s angry dismay. So when Jesus brings up the sign of Jonah, he is not only talking about disappearing for three days and coming back (his coming death and resurrection) but also about taking the possibility of reconciling with God to the enemies of the Jews, the Romans, and to other Gentiles as well, despicable as they are. No wonder these references made people mad. They understood he was saying that God loves more people than the Jews.
When I started thinking about Jesus referring to Jonah, the above was what I thought would be the main idea. However, each time Jesus mentions Jonah, he does so in the context of clarifying what is really important to God. These clarifications take five main directions.
Here are the passages:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the Law say, “Teacher, we want to see you perform a miracle.”
“How evil and apostate, how faithless to God are the people of this day!” Jesus exclaims. “You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the big fish, so will the Son of Man spend three days and nights in the depths of the earth. On the Judgment Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you, because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach, and I tell you that there is something here greater than Jonah!” (Matthew 12)
Jesus says, “You can foretell the weather from the sunset or sunrise, but you cannot interpret the signs concerning these times. How evil and godless are the people of this day! You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of Jonah.” (Matthew 16)
“How evil are the people of this day! They ask for a miracle, but none will be given them except the miracle of Jonah. In the same way that the prophet Jonah was a sign for the people of Nineveh, so the son of Man will be a sign for the people of this day. … On the Judgment Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach; and I assure you that there is something here greater than Jonah!” (Luke 11)
Since each passage occurs in its own context, I looked for threads of meaning that tied the contexts together. Here are those threads.
First, the context teaches us that God cares more about humans and their needs than about the Law.
Several Old Testament prophets condemned Israel to God’s judgment specifically for breaking the laws about Sabbath. So you can imagine that folks who carefully followed the law like the Pharisees are shocked when Jesus’s disciples “harvest” and eat some grain from fields as they walk along on the Sabbath, and when Jesus heals a man with a paralyzed arm on the Sabbath. These actions and Jesus’s words make the Pharisees so angry they plot to kill him. Jesus reprimands those with a legalistic view of the Sabbath by reminding them of what Hosea the prophet said: God desires goodness, kindness, faithfulness, not sacrifices. This means that the actions proceeding from a good, kind, faithful heart are what God has as a priority. Jesus announces to the legalistic folks that even they would pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath, and that doing good to humans on that day is also important and perfectly lawful. He asserts that he himself, “the Son of Man,” is Lord of the Sabbath.
Second, Jesus shows that we cannot limit God’s generosity and grace to those who are like us, and that if we limit these for others, we limit them for ourselves.
Jesus heals a man whom an evil spirit has made unable to see or speak. The Pharisees attribute this miracle-working power to the devil rather than to God. Jesus says that this is first impossible, and second unforgiveable. Why is it unforgiveable? Because when the Pharisees refuse to welcome the healing and freeing power of God for others, they set themselves outside it as well. I can’t be forgiven if I’m not willing for God to forgive others; I can’t be healed if I’m not willing for God to heal others; I can’t be the one God chooses to live in if I won’t allow God to live in others, also. And further, God does all the good we see—every good and perfect gift comes from God. If the Pharisees had known God, they would have known this truth. When Jesus teaches about prayer, he gives his followers a model prayer and encourages them to persist in praying because God is good and gives good gifts.
Third, Jesus goes on to say that there is no sitting by and evaluating.
Those who meet him have two choices—to gather close like fish in a net, or like folks welcomed into a home, or to run away in terror, to scatter. He also points out that we can tell what is in people’s hearts by what they say; perhaps this is like the psychological tendency to project on others what is actually true (and what we dislike) about ourselves. There is no way to stop this process except to admit the nature of our own hearts and open them for God to change. The gospel of John puts it like this: this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people prefer the darkness because they think it hides their evil deeds. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: God is the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from (Mere Christianity).
Fourth, Jesus warns his listeners to be authentic and make sure the light in them isn’t darkness.
He makes that really specific by accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy—cleaning up their facades while carrying around greed and wickedness; tithing spices while neglecting justice and the love of God; loving status while being dead inside; loading up others with burdens while offering no help to carry them; building monuments for the prophets while planning to kill Jesus.
Jesus warns his followers about the yeast of Pharisees and Sadducees—their teaching and their hypocrisy. Their teaching is that only by careful obedience to the Law can a person be redeemed, and their hypocrisy is that they teach this while allowing themselves loopholes and justifying their disobediences. God doesn’t like this: God cares more about repenting for one’s own disobedience and being merciful to others, giving them room for God to work on them without attributing the work of God’s Holy Spirit in them to the devil.
Fifth, Jesus teaches that obedience is the identifying characteristic of the family of God.
When Jesus turns around and hears that his mother and brothers have come to see him, he spreads his arms wide to include all his followers and says, “All who do what God wants them to do are my family.” When a woman blesses Jesus’s mother, Jesus in reply blesses those who hear and obey God.
What might keep people from obeying God? The story of the sower and the four kinds of soil illustrates how having hard hearts, being unwilling to suffer, or worrying about money prevents people from hearing and obeying the good news. But some accept it, let it sink into their hearts and grow, and bring forth the good, kind, faithful actions that show their hearts have changed into good, kind, faithful hearts.
Religious hypocrisy separates people from knowing God; authenticity makes knowing God possible. How can we become more authentic? The way to authenticity is honesty about our neediness before God and obedience to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit.
- We can put human needs ahead of rules.
- We have to keep God’s justice for ourselves and distribute God’s mercy on others.
- We have to take our light out from under the barrel of politics and legalism and obey the mandate to be a light to the world.
Jesus says that the answer to our fears is to gather with him, to press closer to him, and not to split up and run for it. Our stance toward those in need around us is to heal, to give food, to set them free from the evil one. Our stance toward ourselves is to focus on the inside of the cup, not the outside, and be honest about what’s there.
We are called to listen to God and obey, just as Jesus did. Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit, who is voice of God to us, guiding us truly and guiding us closer to truth. Jesus himself is the Truth. Like Jesus, we point to a God who cares that all repent and be redeemed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This frees us to live at peace with God, reconciled with God, able to look into God’s eyes and see the love there, and to share that reconciliation with others.