Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
On sunday, in order to explore Psalm 23:4, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ we recalled the story of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the part of the story of Jonah that involves his being swallowed by a great fish, resting in its stomach for three days only to be spit out again. This was a consequence of Jonah refusing God’s command for Jonah to go and preach to the city of Ninaveh.
Ninaveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and was considered and described by the prophet Nahum as a city of blood, corruption, loot and plunder. While one aspect of what offended Israel was Assyria’s worship of other gods, this idolatrous worship lead to the injustice of empire. Nahum describes not only what is wrong with the religious life, but also the political and social life of Ninaveh and its effect, through expanding empire, on Israel.
At this point in the story of Jonah we don’t know why he runs. Knowing what we now know of Ninaveh I think it is safe to assume that part of what caused Jonah to run from God was fear. God was not satisfied simply that Jonah himself lived a life of faithfulness both religiously and socio-politically. God expected Jonah to represent Israel and God by confronting Assyria with their sinful ways which caused suffering, pain and dread for many.
Joerg Rieger writes in his book ‘Remember the Poor,’ ‘In a world that is becoming ever more interdependent, few things are more important than a new understanding of the challenge of the other, not only at home but also in different locations around the world...the experience of suffering and oppression transcends national or geographic boundaries and creates more wide-ranging bonds of solidarity.’
God expects religious beliefs to influence our public lives. God expects religious faithfulness to go beyond spiritual or intellectual concepts and into actions, risky actions on behalf of the suffering. This caused Jonah to run, fast! Is the idea that religious beliefs should influence public actions a new one to you? Is the thought that we are called not just to believe in private, but to act on our beliefs publicly on behalf of the poor and oppressed, challenging. How does the call of Jonah connect with your life? What about your faith, when placed in the public realm, makes you want to run?