The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I still remember the first time I discovered the wonders of DirecTV and Dish Television. Growing up in a household with basic cable, where our channel list only reached double digits, seemed amateur and primitive once I stumbled upon satellite television. There were all kinds of television channels. Channels dedicated solely to cartoons, sports, news from around the globe, movies, and music. There were also channels that I found extremely odd yet interesting, for example, the Golf Channel and the Outdoor Channel. I never understood why someone would want to watch a channel solely dedicated to doing things outdoors while seating inside . Wouldn’t you just move outside and experience a true live broadcast of the Outdoors.
However, as I scrolled down the infinite glorious list of television channels, one channel in particular caught my attention. And that channel was the Eternal Word Television Network, known as EWTN.
Are you shocked?
I remember watching Life on the Rock with Fr Mary and of course Mother Angelica. Till this day, I occasionally peak and watch EWTN programming, however, nowadays I do this through their YouTube Channel rather than on the television. On a particular Saturday morning when I was visiting my uncle’s home, I stumbled upon a kids cartoon series which retold the great stories of scripture. From the story of creation, to the parting of the red sea, the story of David versus Goliath, and of course, the story of Jonah and the whale. This cartoon series quickly became the highlight of my family visits. So often the core message behind the re-telling of these biblical stories was simple -- God is faithful, even amidst human sin, doubt, and all other obstacles. These cartoons were not concerned with biblical interpretation and history and cultural context. After all, their audience was a seven year old Carlos not a twenty-seven year old man.
Unfortunately, in simplifying and whittling down a biblical story to one or two easy points, we lose sight of the layers and complexity in holy scripture. We accidently neglect pockets of scripture that demand of us to more deeply listen, read, and inwardly digest God’s holy word. So far many years, my understanding of the Book of Jonah came from a 18 minute cartoon episode and nothing else. So if you would have asked me what the story of Jonah was all about I would have simply said -- “The story of Jonah is the story of a man who was in a shipwreck. He trusted in God and loved God. So God protected him by giving him refuge in the belly of a whale. The whale spit out Jonah and God forgave a few bad people afterwards. The end.”
In reading this week’s scripture passages for mass, I quickly realize that my childhood understanding was not only that, a child understanding, but neglected the layers of conflict and wisdom in holy scripture.
Professor Julia O’Brien at Lancaster Theological Seminary points out that“Throughout this book, Jonah cares only about himself. In the first chapter, Jonah jeopardizes all on board the ship in order to avoid a task he refuses to accept. In chapter 4, which we heard today, Jonah’s concern appears to be his reputation: he credits his refusal to go to Nineveh to his awareness the God might relent from carrying out the very punishment Jonah had announced. In the same way Jonah's care for the bush is not for its own well-being but for what it offers him.”
The image of a faithful and humble Jonah has been shattered, I admit, I had not given much thought to the book of Jonah since I was a child. My attention would sometimes shift to the story of Jonah, without much meaning, whenever I saw a Vineyard Vines whale on an article of clothing. In re-reading this book, rather than finding a faithful hero in Jonah, what I found was an anti-hero. By no means a villain but a true anti-hero -- someone whose actions and character are highlighted for the specific purpose to not follow in their ways.
Even with its comic and exaggerated features, the story of Jonah challenges us to question not only the main character’s actions and comments but also question God’s response.
It’s clear from the minor prophets in the Old Testament, that Nineveh was at odds and despised by the Judean community. So much so that Jonah cared more about the destruction of a bush than the possible destruction of women, men, and children in Nineveh. And let’s not forget the opening lines of the book, where God tells Jonah “ Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it: for their wickedness has come up before me.” All signs point to an utter rejection and punishment of Nineveh and its people. But by the end of the story, God shows mercy on Nineveh. Completely at odds with Jonah’s message from the Lord and his human understanding. In the story of Jonah, God’s freedom to act is reinforced. While wicked cities and people are punished in other prophetic books, in the Book of Jonah God shows mercy.
God is free to act as God pleases. We can trust in a loving, merciful, and redeeming God because of God’s very own gift in the person of Jesus Christ. However, even before the arrival of the Incarnate Word, we see God act out of love, mercy, and redemption. Even if it meant shocking those who swore they know God and had heard his word spoken to them. Regardless of how Jonah viewed Nineveh, regardless of how we might view anyone on earth, even our biggest enemies, borrowing words from First Samuel, we should never forget that God does not see as mortals see.
What Jonah saw in Nineveh was an evil and wicked nation and people. His view was supported by those around him and by their understanding of God. But God does not see as mortals see. What God saw in Nineveh was a people who had turned in their ways which was more than Jonah could gaze on. This is not to excuse the horrors that the people of Nineveh had committed against feuding nations. Rather, this is a reminder that even amidst horrible deeds, wickedness, and sinfulness God does not see as mortal see. Because what God sees in all of humanity is not, as the old spiritual says, a “wretch like me” but humankind created in God’s image.
What God sees in us we cannot fully understand but we can begin to acknowledge that no matter how hard we try, how well educated our opinions and thoughts might be, we will never see the world as God sees it. And this is a good thing. Because as Christians our job is to view the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. If we’re able to hold on to an ounce of understanding of how God views the world it is not by our doing but by doing of Christ. Even if we can’t see as God sees, we are given a lens through Christ to see the world beyond our capacity and imagination. We are able to see God’s kingdom even if blurred and at moments unclear. We are assured, once again, of God’s capacity for love, mercy, and redemption, even if we our eyes fail to see. For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind, and God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Amen.
 Julia M. O’Brien. Jonah, Theological Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.