Bible Commentary

Shipwrecked 2: Jonah and the Despised Other

In these stormy days for our nation and world, I’m reflecting on the fact that sometimes Jesus calms the storms, but other times he lets the ship go down. We are called to represent Christ in both situations. I believe, like in the day of Jeremiah, this is not a moment for pastors to preach, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14), but instead to call the church in America to faithfulness and repentance. Today we look at Jonah’s lesson at sea.

The Book of Jonah is a Sunday school favorite, yet hidden beneath its cartoonish drama lies a scathing socio-religious warning—a warning aimed at the people who would claim to be on “God’s side.” What’s it all about?

In a nutshell, Jonah finds himself on a storm-tossed ship that is going to sink because Jonah has rebelled against God by refusing to love his enemy. Jonah despises the Assyrians in Ninevah whom God has told him to go preach to, and instead boards a ship headed in the opposite direction of enemy-embracing-love.

Jonah wants to draw the religious boundaries around who is good and who is bad, and who are the “godly” and who are the “godless.” Tribalism is a very, very old game, and God is tired of it. Jesus came to inaugurate a new Kingdom society that breaks down all social and religious barriers. This new society of Jesus is then sent out to bring love and good news to all people.

But Jonah’s ship full of “secular liberals” and godless atheists is about to sink because the would-be “Christian” refuses to love the Despised Other. Instead of buoying up and blessing the sea-faring society of sailors, the one person onboard who is supposed to know the one true God is bringing the ship down because he has forgotten that his God “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45).

What a sad day it is when those called to show the world the true character and embracing love of God end up preaching bigotry and turning a cold shoulder to those we’ve labeled the Other. God spare us the day when Christians in this nation, called to be a blessing and prophetic voice for good, end up sailing in the opposite direction of God’s Kingdom values and ethics, choosing instead the warmth and safety of our tribe’s applause and acceptance than obedience to an enemy-loving God.

In this story, Jonah realizes the storm will not abate until he is tossed overboard and undergoes a process of repentance in the belly of the fish. He says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you…Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.” (Jonah 1:12, 15). On the other side of repentance, there is hope that Jonah will begin to reflect the heart of God in relationship with a world in need of God’s mercy and grace. 

Is there a message here for Christians navigating this current societal storm aboard this American ship? Are we tempted to blame the despised other for the waves that are currently rocking us? Are we willing to look in the mirror and ask if maybe we’ve been sailing in the wrong direction in our attitude toward others? Are we convinced we’re more righteous than the pagans aboard this ship? Perhaps many are looking directly at people of faith and wondering if we’re in fact a big reason we’re in this mess?

There is mercy on the other side of repentance. And if Jesus himself had to spend three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (Matt 12:40) before ushering in the light of a New Day, perhaps Christians need to do the same. Sometimes Jesus calms the storm, and sometimes he lets the ship go down. Still, at other times he invites his servants to cast themselves into the seas of sober minded reflection and repentance.

The current President loves stoking the flames of partisan animosity. He seems to relish making waves and stirring the waters, and our deep seated division and lack of civil discourse is in some measure due to this president’s non-conciliatory ways.

Meanwhile, Christians have clear marching orders from above to “make every effort to do what leads to peace” (Rom 14:19). Let me say that again: Christians are called to “make every effort to do what leads to peace.” Yet, it is no secret that Evangelical Christians put Trump into the White House, and are therefore partly to blame for the hurricane force winds of instability that are currently raging around us. What might it look like for Christians to make every effort to vote in a way that leads to greater peace for this nation?

In the Scriptures, there are two ways to be swallowed up and vomited out: We can be swallowed by the great fish in an act of repentance and spat out onto the shores of a New Beginning (Jonah 2:10). Or, we can be a well-meaning but compromised Christian whom God will spit out of His mouth like a cup of lukewarm water on Judgment Day (Rev. 3:16) because we “honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from him” (Matt 15:8).

Let all who have ears to hear, listen and follow Jesus by learning to love, and not despise, the other.

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