Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the prophet Jonah and recounts the famous “Jonah and the Whale.” The Lord spoke to Jonah and directed him to go to the city of Nineveh to preach to them. Jonah spent three days crossing it proclaiming: “Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed.” The people of Nineveh heard the message: they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth. Because of this God relented and did not destroy them. Mark, in his Gospel, spoke about how Jesus went to Galilee after John’s arrest. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand and called everyone to repent. On seeing Simon and Andrew casting fishing nets he told them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They followed him. Likewise he saw James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and on Jesus’ call they followed him.
So here’s the problem: When Simon, Andrew, James, and John made the decision to follow Jesus they had absolutely no idea where they would go or where they would end up. All they knew is that they wanted to follow Jesus. And let’s face it: We have some understanding of that. The biggest decisions in our lives have led us to places outside of our expectations.
Don’t believe me? Think about where you were when you got married and where you are now. I speak with people all the time that were born in different parts of the world. When I ask them how they got to San Diego many tell me that their spouse got a job opportunity, or a sibling convinced them to move, or they spent a vacation in a place that appealed to them. Sometimes we follow a spouse who has found an opportunity, or our spouse follows us as we seek our path. Or someone serves in uniform and is told to move.
And we shouldn’t limit our idea of place to simple geography.
Just like marriage, discipleship calls us to places we’d never dreamed. If you don’t believe me, ask Jonah.
Viewers of the 1956 movie “Moby Dick” remember well the scene where Orson Wells climbed the rope ladder at a church service and read this passage from Jonah. Unfortunately this reading can’t be fully understood without knowing what happened before this scene. Without chasing down the rabbit hole of Old Testament history, let me say that Nineveh was a large city in what is now Mosel, Iraq.
Jonah had no trouble with his role as prophet, but when God commanded him to convert the people of Nineveh it was a bridge too far. It was a large city full of heathens and Jonah was on board with the idea that God would destroy the city but he wasn’t on board with the idea of them having a chance to reform their lives. When God told him to travel east, he fled west. He fled to the sea and booked passage on a ship.
This is when it all started to fall apart for him. His fellow passengers were pagans and when they sailed into a storm they all assumed one of their gods was angry and demanded repentance. Eventually Jonah confessed that it was him and they threw him overboard where he was swallowed by a fish. Inside the fish Jonah recognized his need to follow God.
End of the story? Not really. Jonah did go to Nineveh but his attempts to call them to conversion were tepid at best. Today we would call this passive aggressive behavior. And to his horror they converted and were saved. The book of Jonah ended with God telling Jonah he should be happy that the citizens of Nineveh are now saved.
But Jonah wasn’t, and I think this points to something that speaks to us today. What do we do about those we hate? As a follower of Jesus I’m fully willing to hate anyone God hates. But God has no interest in hating those we hate. And in our human history we’ve hated with enthusiasm: the Roman Empire, the Jews, the barbarians who defeated Christendom, the infidels who we fought in the Crusades, the Protestant Reformers, atheists, Muslims… well you get the idea. Many years ago I got a job where I was warned about a particular coworker. I was told that she didn’t play well with others and I should steer around her. Fortunately I didn’t heed that advice. Not only did I end up working well with her, I learned that those who warned me about her were frankly lazy and didn’t like the fact that she called them out. I’m still friends with her and I’ve lost track of those who warned me. It wasn’t the path I intended but it was the path that gave me joy.
If our discipleship to Jesus tells us anything it tells us that we are called not to hate anyone. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of ordinary people at the beginning of their path as disciples. We know where their path led but we don’t know the path we are going to lead. But we do know that our path compels us to follow our path in directions we perhaps wouldn’t choose. We can say with certainty that our path hasn’t been (and won’t be) straight but if we take the path of Jonah we know it won’t go well, for us and for those we meet.
In the 1960s it called us to love people of other races. In the 1970s it called us to see women as equals to men. Since then we’ve been called to love men and women who are attracted to those of the same sex.
This is hard. We can easily love the Ninevites because they are not in our face. But loving those we want to hate because God loves them is hard. But discipleship is hard. Following Jesus is hard.
We can choose the path of Jonah and run away and then choose to be passive aggressive. Or we can choose to love Jesus enough to do exactly what God demands of us.