Preached at Entiat Friends Church
March 22, 2015
Have you ever noticed that Jesus went out of his way to bring up the story of Jonah? 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, Israel’s enemy, 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 the idea that God might care for the enemies of the Jews, the Romans, and other Gentiles as well. No wonder these references made people mad.
Each time Jesus mentions Jonah, he does so in the context of clarifying what is really important to God. This means that we can look at what comes right before and right after to help us understand what Jesus is clarifying. These clarifications take four or five main directions.
Here are the passages:
Matthew 12, summary of context: After being confronted for “harvesting” grain on Sabbath and healing a man’s hand on Sabbath, Jesus asserts he is Lord of Sabbath. After being accused of casting out demons by a demon, Jesus asserts his authority over demons and warns against attributing the work of God to the devil. Then he says:
“How evil and apostate, how faithless to God are the people of this day! 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) Following this, his mother and brothers show up and Jesus asserts that his true family are those who hear and obey God. Then he tells the story of the Sower and the Seed and the various kinds of Soil.
Matthew 16, summary of context: After being confronted for eating with unwashed hands, Jesus asserts that uncleanness is a heart condition, not a problem with hands. He heals a Canaanite girl, a Gentile, and feeds a crowd of over 4000 in a Gentile district, Decapolis. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask him for a sign. Then he says this:
“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) Following this, Jesus warns his disciples against the “yeast” (teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Luke 11, summary: Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, praises Mary for listening, teaches the disciples to pray. Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy, and the crowd speculates he is doing so by the power of the devil. Jesus asserts that the kingdom of God has come among them, and that the blessed ones are those who hear and obey God. Then Jesus says:
“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) Then Jesus talks about letting light shine without blocking it, so that others can see by it. He attends a dinner at a Pharisee’s house and takes the opportunity to confront their emphasis on external piety without caring for cleaning up their hearts.
Although each passage occurs in its own context, threads of meaning tie 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. When we look at what precedes and follows these comments by Jesus, we find the following.
Matthew 12 raises the issue of Sabbath-keeping. 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 possessed by an evil spirit in both Matthew 12 and Luke 11. 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 in Luke 11, 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 no one gets to sit by and stay neutral.
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.
In Matthew 16 and Luke 11, 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 wants us to repent for own disobedience and to be 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.
To summarize the threads of meaning in this passage:
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 because God authorizes us to do so.
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.
What exactly is “the miracle of Jonah”? Is it that he was swallowed by a fish and then vomited up? That previews the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Is it that he actually did obey God? Though certainly not his preference, yet he did what God said. Is it that God used Jonah to redeem people who were enemies to the Jews and who did not know God previously? This is a sign that God’s love and redeeming work are for the whole of humanity, not just the Jews.
We are called to listen to God and obey. Jonah eventually did this. Jesus always did this. 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.