Monday, 19 January 2015

Jonah, Indiana Jones, Alf Garnett, and Australia Day: a sermon (Jonah 3: 1-5, 10)

Before I talk about “Jonah, Indiana Jones, Alf Garnett, and Australia Day”, I’d like to give a bit of background to the time when the book of Jonah was written. It was in the fifth century BC, after the Exile. A generation or so before, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Many of the Jews, particularly the leadership of the people, had been taken into exile in Babylon. After they had been there for a generation or so, further political changes had taken place. Persia had conquered Babylon. The Persians allowed the Jews to begin to return to their own land.
But many other things had changed, as well. After a generation in Babylon, many of the men who came back brought wives who were Gentiles, who weren’t originally Jewish. As well, some of the men who were allowed to stay in the land also married Gentile women.  
A crisis arose as to how to deal with this issue. Is God’s love based on matters of race and ethnicity, or is God’s love given freely to all people? That was the question. Most of these women in fact converted to Judaism - it was at a time when a married woman automatically adopted her husband’s religion - but the issue was really one of ethnicity, rather than religion, anyway. 
A pamphlet war of sorts developed. In the Hebrew Scriptures we have today, we have books written on both sides of the argument.
On one side, we find the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The writers of these books took a hard line on this issue. They praised those Jewish men who sent their Gentile wives packing, even including the majority of women who actually converted to Judaism. While these books are still part of the Hebrew Scriptures, they never made the biblical hit parade - and just as well.
On the other side, we have two little gems of books. They are some of the most popular parts of the Hebrew Scriptures both for Jews and for Christians. They were two works of openly creative fiction in the Scriptures. You could call them sacred novels. They are the book of Ruth and the book of Jonah.
Briefly, the book of Ruth is set in the early days of ancient Israel, the days of the Judges. Naomi and Elimelech, a Jewish couple, move to the land of Moab with their two sons during a famine. The sons marry Moabite women, Gentiles. Elimelech dies, as do the two sons. When the famine is over, Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law that she is returning home and offers them the opportunity of remaining among their own people. Ruth insists that she will go with Naomi to the land of Israel.  Once they are there, a romance develops between Ruth and a wealthy landowner Boaz. They marry and have children. It turns out, then, that Boaz and his Gentile wife Ruth are among the ancestors of the great King David. Take that, Ezra and Nehemiah.
The book of Jonah, on the other hand is a rollicking old sea tale. Jonah was called by God to be a prophet, to speak God’s word to the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and ran away from God’s call. He booked passage on a ship. There was a great storm. The sailors drew lots and decided that Jonah was the cause of the storm. He was thrown overboard, eaten by a great fish, and regurgitated onto the shore. At which point our scripture lesson for today picked up the story.
Let’s imagine we were making a movie out of either of these books. How would we do it?
The book of Ruth is easy. It’s a romance. We’d have to make it a three-handkerchief “chick flick”, wouldn’t we. For Naomi, we’d want some prestigious veteran actress - perhaps Dame Judi Dench or Dame Maggie Smith. We’d probably cast Sean Connery or some other hunky - but mature–age - heart-throb to play Boaz. While, to play the title role of Ruth, we’d probably want someone like Meg Ryan to play a character who’s vulnerable but nobody’s fool.
There’s a bit more of a choice, though, if we were making a movie of the book of Jonah. Perhaps you’d want to make it an action-adventure film with plenty of special effects, featuring the storm at sea and the encounter with the monster fish. In that case, we’d probably cast someone like Harrison Ford as Jonah. Jonah could be the Indiana Jones of the Old Testament. This would be the easy and obvious way to make a movie about Jonah: easy, obvious, and wrong. If we did this, we’d miss the point of the book.
I think the best way of doing Jonah as a movie would be to make it a comedy. I’d cast Warren Mitchell as Jonah. You remember Warren Mitchell? He played Alf Garnett - the thick-headed, Cockney bigot - back in the 1970’s. Alf Garnett had a few imitators. There was Archie Bunker, an American version of Alf Garnett. Here in Australia, there was Ted Bullpitt. But it was all the same character, a thick-headed bigot with loudly-expressed opinions on everything. He was a bit of a domestic tyrant as well. He tended to sulk when he didn’t get his own way, which happened in most episodes. At the end of each episode, Alf/Archie/Ted was usually outwitted by his family and his neighbours. But he usually admitted his mistakes (very reluctantly) at the end of the episode just before the credits began to roll.
Jonah was the first Alf Garnett. Jonah was a thick-headed bigot who sulked when he didn’t get his own way.
Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh when God called him to go. Jonah didn’t like the people of Nineveh. Jonah went as far as possible in the opposite direction. He tried to go by ship to a place called Tarshish - in Spain - at a time when cruising the Mediterranean was much more of a dodgy proposition than it is now. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah tended to respond to any challenge to his worldview in a ridiculous way.
After the storm and after the business with the fish, Jonah changed his mind and went to Nineveh. This is where we find the story in today’s lesson. He still didn’t like the people of Nineveh, but at least there was a hard-nosed message of judgement: “Three days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Jonah may have thought perhaps he’ll be lucky enough to see Nineveh actually destroyed. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah was persistent in his prejudices.
Jonah preached. The people of Nineveh listened - and - the people of Nineveh changed their ways. As a result, God changed God’s mind. Destruction was taken off the agenda. The order went down the line: “Stand down the fire-and-brimstone crew!” 
The story continues after our lesson for today. Jonah was annoyed, so he went off to sulk. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah was great at sulking when he didn’t get his own way.
While Jonah was sulking, God caused a tree to grow near Jonah, to give him some shade. Then the tree died. Jonah sulked some more. God asked Jonah why he was sulking. Jonah got all upset over the tree.
And God’s response (and the comic irony of these words are much more obvious when said with a Jewish accent): “You did nothing to make the tree grow, and yet you sulk. Should I not be concerned over the people of Nineveh whom I made? Not to mention all the animals?” Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah finally got the message as the final credits began to roll.
Now, the people who initially read the book of Jonah - along with the book of Ruth - also got the message. Although the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are still there in the Hebrew Scriptures, they exist mostly as an historical footnote. Their radically exclusive concern was a losing cause. The books of Jonah and Ruth shaped the course of history. The inclusive values proclaimed by these little sacred novels won out, hands down.

In the three classic monotheistic religions that developed in the Middle East,
  • Judaism, 
  • Christianity, and 
  • Islam, 
the concerns of these books remain. The one living God is not just the god of a single tribe, nation, or race. Instead, God’s love is there for all humanity. 
But we live in a time when the Ezras and Nehemiahs increasingly seem to be having things their all own way at the moment. In the broader community, those who wish to restrict the right of full participation in our society on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, or some artificial measure of economic productivity are being taken much more seriously than they deserve.   
The Ezras and Nehemiahs have had it their own way for far too long. It’s not an easy time for those of us who value the inclusive lessons of Ruth and Jonah. Still, God promises us, the Ezras and Nehemiahs will never prevail for long: that’s the message of Ruth and Jonah.
While thick-headed Jonah may have provided a role model for some comic bigots in a later century, the book bearing his name is a caution to all people who seek today:
  • to limit humanity to the members of any single race,
  • to limit virtue to the citizens of any single nation,
  • to limit God’s love to the adherents of any single religion.
On this year’s Australia Day weekend, let us give thanks to God for our multiracial, multicultural, and mulifaith society. Remembering the lessons of Jonah, let us solemnly pledge not to let the Alf Garnetts of our world ruin it.

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