If I knocked on your door and said I needed to borrow you for the next few years but you must come right this moment, would you say “yes”? And if you did say “yes” would your nearest and dearest be glad to see the back of you and help pack your bags? Or would they think you were completely barmy and try to stop you? If you were bringing in a wage, then at the very least they’d resent the hardship and the disruption you were causing.
Disrupting and interrupting
Jesus seemed to make a habit of disrupting and interrupting throughout his ministry. He wasn’t supposed to talk to the Samaritan woman at the well – because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew and they were supposed to be enemies. And she was a woman and he was a man and that was inappropriate too – and she even tells him so. But he carries on regardless. For four days.
And he wasn’t supposed to go to the homes of tax collectors for wine and nibbles since they were seen as collaborating with the Roman enemy. And he wasn’t supposed to heal the servants of the Roman oppressors, because well, they were Roman and oppressing.
Nor was he supposed to spend time with all those sex workers or with a self-harming man who was chained up a safe distance from everybody.
And then there were those who interrupted him in return. Like the woman who gate-crashes the meal with the town worthies, gets on her knees by Jesus to wash his feet with her tears and dries it with her hair and anoints them with perfume. What was she doing here? Conversation stops. Time stops. ‘Awkward’, as my granddaughter would say. And he lets the woman do this. He joins in with the interruption.
Or that Syrophoenician woman in Tyre when Jesus was looking for some get-away-from-it-all down-time, who apparently bests him in a discussion about dogs and crumbs, claims a healing for her daughter and possibly redirects his future ministry to Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus rolls with that and his commission is no longer just to Israel.
And it wasn’t because Jesus just liked to be plain difficult. He was pulling apart social boundaries and making himself available to the ‘other’ because he saw those boundaries as damaging and oppressive and not what his Father wanted.
And there are some parallels between Jesus and Jonah, which was our OT passage today. One helps us to ‘read’ the other.
You had to be there
Jonah walks into the heart of an evil empire with little expectation of coming out alive. And he preaches a sermon which in Hebrew is just 5 words long. Then he shuts up. He’s silent. You can imagine the Ninevites asking themselves: What is he doing here? And who does he think he is? Yet his physical presence in Ninevah brings disruption and unhinges everything. The city stops. Everyone repents, animals too!
And long before he gets into Jerusalem, towards the end of his ministry, Jesus tells people he will be arrested and killed. He then stands before Pilate in silence. Silence. How was Pilate supposed to handle silence? Pilate can’t see that much harm had been done but Jesus gives him nothing to help him plead his cause. Who are you and what are you doing here? Pilate asks him. And at that moment Pilate probably asks the same question of himself too.
How do you see the cross?
And then we might think of the cross. Is the cross an end? “It is finished” – sin is forgiven and all is done and dusted? Or do we think of the cross as a path to be trod, an inner journey of dying to the world?
Or maybe, just maybe, the cross is only the start of things for us – a call to outward social and political action? Of continuing the work started during Jesus’ lifetime of confronting boundaries and inequalities that we find around us? What are we doing with our salvation?
To see the cross as a done deal is a bit like Jonah never leaving home and never getting on the boat. And to see it as just an inward process of becoming better people is like finding ourselves in the belly of a whale and staying there, singing our songs.
Jonah had to walk into the heart of Ninevah to affect a change. Are we going anywhere? Are we changing anything?
He didn’t like it
Not that Jonah was happy with the outcome. In chapter 4, the one after today’s reading, he didn’t like it that God forgave them. That the villains got redemption. He didn’t like it any more than probably any of us would if God forgave anyone that we would consider really evil.
So, Jonah parked himself outside Ninevah – and apart from a telling-off by God, we never do find out what happens next. In the Bible it never says how Jonah’s particular story is resolved. There is no chapter 5 to tie it all up.
But if we know our history then we know that Ninevah eventually became known as Mosul, in modern day Iraq. And until recently there was a tomb there revered as belonging to the prophet Jonah. In Islamic tradition, Jonah stayed. He’s seen as a prophet that delivers difficult messages. That tomb was blown up by ISIS in 2014…
What happened next?
And after visiting Pilate, Jesus too was outside a city. But hanging on a tree. And we know what happened next to Jesus. His death, then the tomb, then the resurrection.
So, what does our ‘what happened next’ look like?
It’s easy to criticise Jonah for going in the other direction – but how many of us would now travel into the heart of places like Afghanistan or Sudan? We should give thanks – and pray – for those that do.
Yet Jesus followed the path trod first by Jonah. And he calls us from the equivalent of our fishing boats to take up our own crosses and follow him. Follow him to continue his work of disruption and interruption. To talk to those that we’re not supposed to. To declare grace and forgiveness to those we think least deserve it – and to show compassion and confront boundaries. Do we walk into the heart of whatever are evil empires for us and become agents of radical, life-giving, God-given, change? To have people say of us: “What are you doing here?”
What have you done since?
Remember when Jesus first asked you to follow him? How have you followed him since? Has it been a journey of obedience? Have you been open to the occasional disruption and interruption? Or like Jonah have there been times when you simply tried to run away? Perhaps that’s even happening now? What is he calling you into? Developing untapped gifts and skills? Exploring a calling?
And where does Jesus come in our lives? Is he in first place or do other things take precedence? The fishermen left families and livelihoods – are we willing to be that uncomfortable, to be interrupted and disrupted ourselves from our familiar routines?…
I’m going to finish with a poem called Jonah’s Blessing by Jan Richardson:
It comes as small surprise
that you would turn your back
on this blessing,
that you would run
far from the direction
in which it calls,
that you would try
to put an ocean
and what it asks.
Something in you knows
this blessing could
swallow you whole
no matter which way
Hard to believe, then,
that every line of this blessing
swims in grace—
grace that, in the end,
will find hard to fathom
so swiftly does it come
and with such completeness,
What to do, then,
with such a blessing
that depends so little
and yet asks of us
What to do
with a blessing
that comes with
such strange provision,
every inch of it
looking like something
that will draw us
into our dying?
Trust me when I say
all it wants
is for you
to fall in,
to let yourself
the curious refuge
that it holds
and then to go
in the direction
it propels you,
following its flow
that will bear you
where you desired not
where you dreamed not
yet none but you
- Blower, D.B. (2016). Sympathy for Jonah. Eugene: Resource Publications.