Scriptural Truths Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Part 4 of the series, “What It Means to be Christian” Let me tell you a familiar story, one that I’ve told you before, one that you heard 100 times before you ever heard it from me. Once upon a time, there lived a man named Jonah. His name […]
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Part 4 of the series, “What It Means to be Christian”
Let me tell you a familiar story, one that I’ve told you before, one that you heard 100 times before you ever heard it from me.
Once upon a time, there lived a man named Jonah. His name is really all we know about him. Was there a Mrs. Jonah? Was there a Jonah Junior? Was he generous? Did he have pets? How old was he? None of that is mentioned in the tale. We don’t even know what Jonah did for a living. The story of Jonah begins with these words, “The divine Word came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” And that is all the introduction to Jonah we get; which is odd, because when we are meant to accept a biblical character as being historical, some bio is usually provided; some genealogy, his or her position in the community, the character’s career or passionate avocation. None of that info is provided for Jonah. But I digress.
The divine word came to Jonah saying, “Go to the great city of Ninevah, and preach to them.”
Jonah says, “Thank you, no” and books passage for Tarshish in the Iberian peninsula.
That is honestly the first two and half verses of the story. The story doesn’t really have a beginning. Some guy named Jonah thinks God wants him to go to Assyria, he refuses, and hops a boat to Spain instead.
As you know, while on the boat to Iberia, a storm brews. The seasoned, experienced, well trained crew members decide that the storm is the result of someone on board being punished by the gods; this cracker jack band of intellectual giants then decide they will find out who it is that the gods find so annoying by drawing lots. Everyone on board has to participate, Jonah draws the short straw, and the crew tosses paying customer Jonah overboard to appease the agitated weather gods.
That’s bad business, it’s bad meteorology, and its bad theology. Nevertheless, Jonah’s in the drink.
But as luck would have it, a really big fish comes along and swallows Jonah whole, and Jonah takes up residence in this fish. Just makes himself at home. When life gives you lemons…
After three days the great big fish barfs Jonah out and, again, as luck would have it, the fish barf and Jonah in it wind up on land.
But wait, there’s more! The land is the shore of Assyria, the country whose capital is Ninevah, the place Jonah was supposed to go from the start. This is starting to get all wrapped up like Murder She Wrote.
Jonah walks to Ninevah, and while he’s there, he preaches some hateful sermons. He tells whoever will listen, “in 40 days, God is going to destroy this city.” He ended this message with, “this is the good news!”
Now, the story suggests that the Ninevites had a change of heart. They repented; that is, they turned from certain attitudes toward healthier attitudes. Maybe they started caring about the “least of these.” Maybe they started loving their neighbors as themselves. Maybe they started being generous with the poor, compassionate to the sick. Maybe many of them had always been kind and caring and Jonah just assumed that some religious or political leaders represented everyone in the land. Maybe Jonah totally oversold the sky is falling part.
When Ninevah isn’t destroyed, Jonah gets angry, so angry that drama Queen Jonah just wants to die. If God isn’t going to destroy those darn Ninveites, then he doesn’t want to live. Meanwhile, a big weed pops up. And Jonah becomes pathologically attached to this weed. He loves this weed. This weed is his new best friend. But as suddenly as the weed popped up, it died. And Jonah was inconsolable. He cried like a jilted lover. And that’s when, the story says, God chastised Jonah. God said to him, “You somehow are able to care very deeply for some ridiculous weed. If you can think so highly of a weed, how much more must I love the Ninevites?”
And that’s the whole story. The Assyrian empire was one of the many empires to conquer and oppress Jonah’s community, that is to say, the community out of which the parable of Jonah emerged. Hard feelings and prejudices evolved over time. The story of Jonah reflects those feelings, showing a religious character assuming that God hates the same people he hates, and in the end he discovers that in reality, God is love and divine love rejects no one for any reason. We are all the children of God.
I don’t believe there was ever any Jonah. I don’t believe that people take up residence in cartoonishly large fish. I don’t believe that sane people give their hearts to wild weeds. I don’t believe that a single detail in the story of Jonah is factual; and I believe that the story of Jonah is absolutely true.
Myths and parables are fictional accounts meant to communicate deep truths that dry facts never could. Jesus taught in parables; he didn’t make up that technique; it’s quite ancient.
Jonah isn’t real, but bigotry is, homophobia is, transphobia is, Islamophobia is, misogyny is, racism is, classism is, ableism is, xenophobia is, presumed national exceptionalism is, mass incarceration is, out of control gun violence is…Jonah isn’t real, but the hatred of the Other that he symbolizes, is. The non-real Jonah communicates much that is very real and very relevant even still.
Jonah is called to a journey of faith; spiritual growth is a journey. He doesn’t want to take the journey. He wants to preserve the status quo. He wants to get back to the good old days. He runs away from the journey that is his to take. But avoiding what needs to be done, resisting the growth and healing that is needed, puts one between a rock and hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea, in a pickle, or to use the idiom of the story, it places one in the belly of a fish.
The fictional fish takes Jonah to the land of his enemy where he learns that his enemies are not God’s enemies. The people he hates are not hated by God. The people he thinks are human garbage in fact do have innate dignity and sacred value. And to drive that point home, Jonah is sent to and winds up in Ninevah, named for the fish god Ninos, and who takes Jonah to Ninevah, Fish City, but a big fish…literary symbolism at its best.
The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg used to say that Native American storytellers would often begin their tales with, “I don’t know if this happened exactly this way, but I do know that it’s absolutely true.” That can be said for most of what we read in the bible. It’s not about verifying facts; it’s about uncovering spiritual truths.
Borg also offers three levels of thinking…and far too many of us get stuck at level one or two, never making it to level 3.
Level 1 is pre-critical naiveté, where we believe what we’re told without question.
An elf flies in a gravity defying sleigh once a year, reaches every child on earth and leaves unearned gifts. Why not?
Level 2 is critical thinking. We learn to ask questions and to not suspend reason.
One couldn’t make it all over the world in a night. One couldn’t fly without a helicopter or plane, and even the fastest flying machine couldn’t cover the globe, making billions of stops in a night. It’s bunk!
But level 3 is the level of spiritual thinking, and that is post-critical thinking.
Pre-critical naiveté and then critical thinking are both normal and good, but they can lead us to post-critical thinking where we reclaim the myths, enjoy the old stories in new ways, and find that they are true whether or not they ever did or could happen.
Love and peace and goodwill and generosity and grace are needed, they change lives, and those gifts are within us and the world is better as we share them; yes Virginia there IS a Santa Claus!
When we deconstruct our bible stories, we are doing so with great reverence. We are encouraging the naïve to think critically and the critical thinkers to move to the next level of post-critical wonder, joy, and playfulness.
And we can apply that process to every biblical story.
Snakes and donkeys don’t talk, they never did; but Nature does reveal lessons we can apply to life.
90 year old women don’t get pregnant, but it is never too late to embrace a life-giving endeavor.
Every species on the planet could not fit on a single boat, nor could a single family repopulate the earth after a global flood, but when we are being flooded with difficulties, we can remember that eventually the deluge will end and new beginnings will emerge.
The mark of the beast is a story about Nero Ceasar and not some future sci-fy villain, showing that tyranny is as old as consciousness, but in the end it can never prevail.
The alchemy of turning water into wine or of making bread last longer or feed more people than it should are not journalistic accounts of things that happened but are probably allegories about the power of generosity.
At least 10 people were raised from the dead in the bible, not counting a multitude that only Matthew seems to know anything about. Whether or not I take those stories literally, I embrace the truth they offer that life is never-ending that we cannot be separated from the life of God.
There are marvelous truths to be found, if we don’t cheapen the stories with needless and unsustainable literalism.
I doubt if many of our bible stories happened exactly as they were recorded, and I know that they are absolutely true.
In fact, the miracle of sacred literature is that new, healing, liberating, life-changing truths can be discovered with each reading. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I am open to Truth wherever it may be found.
I embrace the Truth of my sacred value.
I rejoice in the Truth of God’s all-inclusive and unconditional love.
And so it is.