The first reading is from the very short Book of Jonah – one of the minor prophets. Jonah is only mentioned one other time outside of the book bearing his name in the Book of 2nd Kings. He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II who reigned over the northern Kingdom of Israel from 789-748 BCE – just before the Assyrians invaded in 721 BCE and wiped Israel off the map. It was said of King Jeroboam II “He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”
So this places Jonah as a prophet just prior to the Assyrian invasion. In those days there were really two kinds of prophets – the court prophets, or advisors, to the king and … well … the other guys who generally offered the alternative narrative, so to speak. The “other guys” were people like Hosea and Amos – and they were very critical of the kings and the economic oppression they were inflicting on the people. They said unpopular things which, in essence, said, “Hey, look to the north! The Assyrians are getting powerful! This will be big trouble for you if you keep your foot on the neck of the poor because when the Assyrians invade, who do you think the poor will side with? Not you!!” (OK … I’ve just summarized the basic message, but you get the idea). This was not a popular narrative and the court prophets, who generally were the “yes men” of the king, kept saying everything was just fine because we are God’s people and God will protect us. Some scholars believe Jonah belonged to this group of court prophets and have proposed that the Book of Jonah is actually a satirical jab at the court prophets themselves. I find this an intriguing idea and treating it as satire makes a lot of sense.
First, it gets us past that whole literal thing about his being three days in the belly of the whale (or big fish, which is a better translation). We can take that as metaphor instead of wondering how he could survive the stomach acid of the fish. It also sets the stage better for Jonah’s response to his call. Here’s the Sparknotes version:
God tells Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and tell those people I’m not happy with what’s going on there.” Nineveh is the capital city of … the Assyrian Empire (the empire which is rapidly coming to power in Jonah’s lifetime). Jonah essentially says, “Aw hell no! I’m going to Tarshish.” He books a passage on the next boat out and, while at sea, a great storm comes up. Jonah knows it’s because he bailed on God and throws himself overboard to save the rest of the people (a somewhat noble act given his overall cranky attitude). Big fish swallows Jonah and he spends three days there. In that time he offers up a lament which, quite frankly, is rather narcissistic. It’s all about Jonah and what a bummer it is that his life has come to this. Fish spits Jonah out and God says, “Go to Nineveh and do what I told you to do.” As a side note, Jonah has acquired some cred in this fish episode – the people of Nineveh worship a fish headed god called Dagon and anybody who survived an encounter with Dagon had to be taken seriously. Nineveh is a three day’s journey across, so he sets out, walks for one day which probably just got him inside the city gates … and he says, “God’s gonna get you if you don’t repent.” Then he turns around and leaves. Yeah, he did what God told him to do …by doing the bare minimum! Then he goes up on a cliff to sit down and watch the hellfire and brimstone rain down on Nineveh – because surely God was going to smite them. A plant springs up and gives him shade, for which he’s thankful. Then a worm comes and kills the plant. Jonah grieves over the plant and is kind of ticked off that the Ninevites get off the hook. God says, “Are you kidding me?! You cry over a plant but have no feelings for all of those people?! Seriously?!” … The End. (I told you that’s the Sparknotes version).
So Jonah is one cranky, selfish guy who only reluctantly does what God tells him to do. Contrast that with the reading from Mark about the call of the first disciples. Jesus begins his ministry by preaching repentance and believing in the good news. He sees Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” Intrigued, they drop everything and follow Jesus. James and John do the same. Mark gives us a hint about the ages of the disciples in this. The average life span in the Roman Empire was 40 years. James and John are in the boat with their father Zebedee. If Zebedee is still able to work, he’s likely in his 30’s … which would make James and John likely in their late teens. We often see Jesus and the disciples pictured in art as being roughly the same age but this narrative hints at an age difference. So what made them drop everything and follow immediately and willingly? Maybe the hint of an adventure – if you think about it, what future did these guys have? Fishing today, fishing tomorrow, fishing next week … pretty monotonous, isn’t it? And fishermen really weren’t highly regarded by anyone. So suddenly this guy comes along and invites you to follow … well … what have you got to lose, right?
The calls of Jonah, the reluctant follower, and the disciples as willing followers gives us two responses and, frankly, I find I’m usually some mixture of the two. Sometimes I am quick to say “yes” and other times I try to head for Tarshish. For me, ordination to the priesthood was my personal Nineveh. I didn’t spend 3 days in fish guts … more like 26 years of trying to find a way out. But here I am … and Nineveh isn’t so bad after all.
God’s call to each of us demands a response. Each of us in baptism becomes a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How we respond to that is the question. The good news is God uses our response, whether willing or reluctant, to work out the plan of salvation. God can use Jonah’s reluctant crankiness as much as he could the willingness of Simon, Andrew, James and John. None of them knew what they were going to get into by following their call. None of us knows exactly where God’s call will take us either. But God is faithful and never leaves us to face this adventure alone.