THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Doesn’t it just burn you up when you see that character in the sporty little BMW cruising along in the shoulder past a mile of creeping cars like yours and then trying to merge in at the last minute-and somebody always lets him in. Always. And then there is the guy in his pickup with the Confederate flag on the back weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, tailgating everyone who gets in his way. Ever notice how there is never a police car in sight when that happens? Never. Worst of all is that woman whose car has only one speed, 50 MPH. That is her cruising speed whether she is in the left lane of the New Jersey Turnpike or in the middle of a school zone. Yet somehow she manages to keep her license. Meanwhile, I am writing out my check to pay the parking ticket I got because my bumper extended an inch or so over the yellow line extending from the intersection. And we wonder why people have road rage.
The prophet Jonah had a bad case of road rage. You may recall that Jonah was the reluctant prophet sent (dragged kicking and screaming, actually) to proclaim God’s judgment upon the city of Nineveh. We don’t hear about the temper tantrum he threw in our lesson for Sunday, but we are told the reason for it. God spared the evil city of Nineveh from the judgment of destruction God had decreed for it. Understand that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the biggest geopolitical bully on the block for much of Israel’s history. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel altogether and reduced the Southern Kingdom of Judah to a mere vassal state subject to military occupation and crushing taxation. The Assyrians were cruel, blood thirsty and destructive. Whatever judgment God might wreak upon their capital would be well deserved-and the sooner the better as far as Jonah was concerned. Jonah was looking forward to some big time payback.
But the story takes an unexpected turn. Jonah’s preaching succeeded as no other prophet’s preaching ever had. His words brought the proud nation of Assyria to its knees in repentance. When God saw this great communal change of heart, God also repented of the judgment intended for Nineveh. “Really?” cries Jonah. “Seriously? You destroy the city and temple of your own people and send them into exile for breaking their covenant with you. But these terrorist thugs, who don’t even know your name and have never lifted a finger to obey your law, they get off scot free just because they weep a few crocodile tears and throw a little dust on their heads. This you call justice?”
The problem with people like Jonah and me is that we are incapable of taking the long view. I see bad drivers from my own narrow perspective. I seldom ask myself what is going on in their lives. For example, the guy racing ahead of the pack to cut in further up might be responding to a call informing him that his child has been in an accident and is clinging to life in the ICU. The woman stuck at 50 MPH perhaps knows that she is not up to driving anymore, but has no one to take her shopping or to the doctor. Even wantonly reckless driving, for which there is no justification, is rooted in motives, circumstances and events I have no way of knowing or understanding. So who am I to say what is just in any of these situations?
Furthermore, who am I to demand justice? Am I willing to place my own life and conduct on the same scale of justice I want for everyone else? Do I really want to receive from God what in God’s view I deserve? If that is justice, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would ask for it. As a poet once observed, “Ain’t no one alive should have the nerve/to say we all should get what we deserve.”
Fortunately for us, God’s view of justice is a good deal more expansive than ours. We tend to view justice in terms of Anglo/American jurisprudence. It’s all a matter of rights and remedies. When you and I have a dispute, we go to court. The court determines whose rights have been violated and how much money should be paid in compensation to the injured party. Then the case is over. The court has no interest in the parties or the dispute after that. But God is deeply interested in what takes place after judgment has been entered. It is not enough that restitution be made. The parties must be reconciled before justice is done. So whether God punishes or refrains from punishing, the objective is reconciliation with God and between God’s people. Reconciliation, not payback, is always the end game.
Ironically, God seems to be having more success in that realm with the godless empire of Assyria than with his own prophet. Would that God’s prophet were as deeply moved by God’s mercy as are the people of Nineveh! Would that Jonah understood that God cares less about vindicating rights than restoring relationships. Would that the church were an island of reconciliation in a world driven mad with road rage justice.
The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. Instead of a collection of oracles and speeches sometimes framed with narrative, Jonah is narrative from beginning to end with a psalm of praise thrown into the center of the book. It is the story of a prophet who, unlike the God he serves, values justice over mercy. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he values his own truncated view of justice over God’s more expansive view. Make no mistake about it, the God of the Bible (Old Testament as well as New) is no indulgent grandfather who cannot bring himself to discipline the kids as they merrily trash the house. God’s judgments have teeth, as the Babylonian exiles can attest. Nonetheless, God’s punishment is never an end in itself. If God wounds, God wounds in order to bring about healing. That insight is lost on poor Jonah.
The majority consensus of most Hebrew Scripture commentators is that the Book of Jonah was composed in the Post-Exilic period during the latter half of the 4th Century B.C.E. Neil, W. “The book of Jonah” published in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II ed. By George Arthur Buttrick (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 966. It has long been suggested that this book was written to challenge the exclusivist policies expressed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which went so far as to require the dissolution of marriages between Jews and persons of less than pure Jewish lineage. Ibid. But as Professor Terrence Fretheim points out, there are problems with this view. “None of the specific issues dealt with by Ezra and Nehemiah are even alluded to in the book (such as mixed marriages and mixed languages, see Nehemiah 9, 10; Ezra 9, 10).” Fretheim, Terrence, The Message of Jonah (c. 1977 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 35. For this and other reasons, recent commentators suggest an earlier date somewhere between 475 B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. E.g., Burrows, M., “The Literary Category of the Book of Jonah” published in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament, ed. By H. Frank & W. Reed (c. 1971 by Abingdon) p. 105. The issue appears to be more one of God’s treatment of Israel among the nations than Israel’s treatment of non-Jews within its midst, though I would add that the two issues are not entirely unrelated.
The author of this prophetic book selected the name “Jonah son of Amittai” for his protagonist. This is no random choice. In II Kings, Jonah is credited with prophesying the salvation of Israel from foreign oppression by the hand of Jeroboam II. Though Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “made Israel to sin,” God nonetheless “saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter…” and that “there was none to help Israel.” II Kings 14:23-26. Out of compassion God “saved [Israel] by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” II Kings 14:27. One would think that a prophet who foretold and witnessed God’s salvation of his own sinful people by the hand of their sinful king could find it in his heart to welcome the extension of that mercy to the rest of creation. But Jonah turns out to be more than a little tightfisted with God’s grace.
It is also noteworthy that no mention is made of repentance on the part of Israel in II Kings. Jonah’s preaching does not seem to have had much effect on the hearts of his own people. By contrast, the people of Nineveh are moved by Jonah’s preaching to acts of repentance never before seen in Israel or anywhere else. This is remarkable as Jonah has done everything possible so far to avoid success in Nineveh. First he tries to run away from the job. Then he preaches a sermon that is all but unintelligible. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. The whole sermon. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are going to be overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can possibly do to avoid being overthrown. Nevertheless, the word of the Lord somehow breaks through the prophet’s few and feeble words. Somehow, the people discover the depth of their sin and, more marvelously still, they begin to suspect that the God under whose judgment they stand has a merciful heart. Jonah is a wildly successful prophet in spite of himself!
The reading tells us that God “repented” of all that God intended to do at Nineveh. Does God change God’s mind? Yes and no. God will never cease loving God’s creation; God will never give up on God’s people; God will never abandon God’s plan to redeem creation. In that sense, it is quite proper to say that God’s will is eternally predestined and not subject to change. It is also true that God’s creation is in constant flux requiring God’s love for it to change shape, adapt to new circumstances and express itself in different ways. To that extent, it is fair to say that God changes, adapts and even “repents.”
This psalm is classified as a “Psalm of Trust,” though I think it has elements of lament as well. The psalmist is clearly in a difficult situation with former friends having turned against him. Indeed, they press him so hard that he feels like “a leaning wall, a tottering fence.” Vs. 3 (not in the reading). These “friends” are perfidious, flattering him with their speech while inwardly cursing him and plotting to “cast him down.” Vs. 4 (not in the reading). This is the context in which we need to view the verses making up our lesson.
The psalmist does not respond in kind to his foes. S/he does not respond to them at all. Instead, s/he waits in silence for God who is his/her true hope. Vs. 5. God is the psalmist’s “rock.” Vs. 6. In order to understand the full impact of this assertion, we need to back up to verse 4 which is not in our reading. There the psalmist accuses his foes of planning to “bring down a person of eminence.” This translation does not do justice to the Hebrew which states that these enemies are seeking to bring the psalmist down from his “height,” meaning a “rock” or defensive “tower.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 62. Thus, verse 6 replies that the psalmist’s “rock” and “fortress” is God. Though the psalmist may be a “leaning wall” and a “tottering fence,” the “rock” upon which s/he takes his/her stand is sure. The psalmist’s deliverance comes not from outwitting his enemies at their own game or in employing against them the same venomous and hateful stratagems they use on him/her, but in God’s anticipated salvation. vs. 7.
In verse 8 the psalmist turns to admonish his fellow worshipers to likewise place their faith in God and to pour out their hearts before him. Vs. 8. Human power and wealth is illusory. Vs. 9. Extortion and robbery do not lead to any true and lasting security. Wealth may be enjoyed, but never trusted to provide security. Vs. 10. Verse 11 continues the admonition with a numerical formula found frequently throughout biblical “wisdom literature:” “One thing God has spoken, twice have I heard this…” So also in the Book of Proverbs, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” Proverbs 6:16-19. A similar construction is used by Amos in his prophetic oracles: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing-sledges of iron. So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate-bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir, says the Lord.” Amos 1:3-5. See also Amos 1:6-2:8. Here the construction serves to emphasize the two inseparable truths: All true power belongs to God and, equally important, so does “steadfast love.” Vs. 11-12.
The psalm complements our lesson from Jonah in emphasizing how God’s steadfast love drives and shapes the expression of God’s power. The saving power of God is contrasted here with the malicious exercise of raw power against the psalmist by his/her enemies. Love is finally the only power worth having and the only power worthy of trust.
This is a rather gloomy chunk of scripture. Paul seems to be giving advice to young unmarried people, the sum and substance of which is “married is good, but single is better.” Significantly, Paul begins this discussion with a disclaimer: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Vs. 25. I am not sure what Paul means when he speaks of the “present distress.” Vs. 26. I don’t get the impression that the church in Corinth is experiencing the kind of hostility and persecution we hear about in Philippi, Thessalonica and Ephesus. I get the impression that Paul is alluding not to any local source of distress, but rather to the general distress growing out of the fact that “the form of this world is passing away.” Vs. 31.
One simple explanation for this reading lies in attributing to Paul the mistaken notion that the end of the world was imminent. Of course, if the world is ending tomorrow it makes little sense to marry, bear children and build a home. Time would be better spent preparing for the end and getting the word of the gospel out while there is still time. Marriage and other family attachments only hinder one’s effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I do not believe Jesus, Paul or any of the other New Testament authors held any such view. I don’t believe there ever was a “crisis” in the church precipitated by the “delay of Christ’s return.”
I believe that the “present distress” arises from what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as “the whole creation…groaning in travail together until now…” as “we who have the fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-23. The pains of dissolution for the old order are the birth pangs for the new. God is at work in the world’s turmoil bringing the new creation to birth. In much the same way, God’s Spirit is at work in our dying to self and rising to Christ as we live out our discipleship within the Body of Christ. Marriage is an exclusive relationship of intimacy that is, at least potentially, at odds with the disciple’s relationship of intimate love between members of the whole Body of Christ described in I Corinthians 13. It is very telling that this “love chapter” is a favorite for weddings, though it has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with the church! While Paul clearly believes that marriage is both legitimate and capable of integration into the larger community of love within Christ’s Body, he nevertheless believes that life in Christ will be a good deal simpler and easier for the single than for the married-at least for those who can handle being single.
Once again, this is by Paul’s own admission his own personal view colored by his experience as a single person. I choose to treat it as just that. Great for Paul and others like him, but not so much for the rest of us. For all of us, though, the text is a reminder that nothing of the world as we know it is permanent. Neither marriage, nor one’s profession, nor one’s accomplishments are eternal. When we treat them as if they were, we cross over into the sin of idolatry.
There are three important imperatives introduced in verses 14-15: 1) The time is fulfilled; 2) repent; and 3) believe the good news. The New Testament uses two Greek words for what the English versions translate as “time.” “Kronos” means chronological time measureable in days, weeks and years. “Kairos” means time in the sense of “the time has come” or “it’s about time.” A kairos moment is a defining one, such as Pearl Harbor for my parent’s generation; the assassination of President Kennedy in my own; and the 9/11 attack for that of my children. Kairos time changes the trajectory of history, propelling us into new directions. Mark uses the word “kairos” indicating that this moment within chronological time proclaimed by Jesus is special. It is a time such as the Exodus-a time in which God exercises saving power propelling the world in the direction of God’s redemptive intent for it. This time is “at hand” (“eggizo” in Greek). The verb means to approach, or draw near. Mark uses it in the “aorist” tense which is like our past tense only stronger in that it denotes completed action.
This Kairos moment of Jesus’ in-breaking upon the society of Israel coincides with John the Baptist’s arrest. The relationship between the ministry of John and that of Jesus is not worked out in Mark to the extent that it is in the other gospels, though Mark does intimate that John’s role is similar if not identical to Elijah’s eschatological task of “restoring all things.” Mark 9:11-13. See also Malachi 4:5-6. The identification of Jesus’ rising with John’s arrest might also emphasizes the newness of all that Jesus represents. As we will see in the story of the Transfiguration, the focus now is neither upon Moses (the law) nor Elijah (the prophets), but upon God’s beloved Son. Mark 9:2-8.
The term “kingdom of God” is not an apt translation of Mark’s meaning in verse 15. Just as we have come to identify “church” as a building with a steeple, so we have come to view the kingdom of God as a place. Too often the kingdom is equated with some very unbiblical conceptions of “heaven.” The better translation might be “the reign of God” or the “sovereignty of God.” Thus, when Jesus declares that God’s reign has drawn near, he means that God’s sovereignty is pressing in and making itself felt. The only appropriate response to this new reality is repentance and faith.
Repent (metanoeo in Greek) is not all about feeling remorse or guilt. Literally, the word means simply “to turn around.” It refers to a radical change of heart; a turning toward God’s call away from one’s old way of living. The word Mark uses for “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo,” meaning “to trust,” or “have confidence in” someone or something. “Good news” (“euggelion” in the Greek) means just that. Sometimes translated “gospel,” it refers to a royal proclamation with kingly authority behind it. In this case, of course, the authority behind the good news is God. Mark makes clear that Jesus’ appearance on the stage of history inaugurates the reign of God.
While there is never any mention of the church in Mark’s gospel, it is powerfully present throughout in the community of disciples called into existence by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. The church is less an institution than a gathering that springs into existence wherever Jesus speaks and acts. It is hardly coincidental that the calling of the first disciples comes as Jesus embarks upon his mission.
The renowned New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann believes that this story about the call of the four disciples is a “biographical apothegm,” that is, an idealized story of faith inspired by the early Christian metaphor, “fishers of men.” Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Blackwell, Oxford, pub. by Harper & Row) p. 56. By contrast, commentator Vincent Taylor views this story as an actual historical reminiscence of the disciples preserved in the preaching of the New Testament church. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 168. Naturally, there are all shades of opinion in between.
While slightly more interesting than most cocktail chat, the conversation does not strike me as particularly important. The issue is not whether and to what extent the gospels can be relied upon to provide the so called “objective historical data” we imagine to be so critical. The real question is whether or not the New Testament “got Jesus right.” If it did, it matters not one wit how the gospel narrative is weighed by our rather antiquated 19th Century notions of what constitutes “history.” If the New Testament got Jesus wrong, then we shall have to embark upon that seemingly endless quest for the “historical Jesus.” For all who wish to undertake this journey, I wish you the best of luck. While you are out there, see if you can find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Barak Obama’s Kenyon birth certificate and the bodies of those three aliens whose spaceship crashed at Roswell.
The compelling lure of Jesus’ call to discipleship and the repentance and faith it elicits find concrete expression in the response of the four fishermen. Hooker, Morna, D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 59, pp. 60-61. Andrew and Peter leave their nets, valuable income producing property, on the lake shore to follow Jesus. James and John leave their father and his business, their own future livelihood, to answer Jesus’ call. While the fishermen were hardly wealthy, they were not poverty stricken either. They were men who had established themselves in a life sustaining craft. It cannot be said that they flocked to Jesus out of sheer desperation. They left behind a reasonably secure existence for the sake of God’s reign. As Hooker points out, Peter’s boast in Mark 10:28 is not an idle one. Ibid at p. 61.
This story has always proven to be problematic for the post-Constantine church whose role has been to provide ideological support for commerce, the family and all of the other critical institutions of the empire. Our Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” epitomizes the schizophrenic consequences of trying to pour the new wine of God’s reign into the old skins of Caesar’s empire. In theory, God has two hands. With one, God offers salvation by grace through faith by the work of the church. With the other hand, God ordains civil governments to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful world so that the work of the church can flourish unhindered by violence, chaos and oppression. Sounds good on paper, but when you raise a young person for eighteen years to love enemies, forgive wrongs and to view all people as persons created in God’s image and then turn him over to the armed forces to be made into a killing machine-what you get is PTSD. To a lesser degree, we have highly conflicted individuals in professions like law, business and medicine designed to generate profit whatever else their guiding principles might say. Sending young people into this jungle with instructions to practice their professions for Jesus may help boost sales for valium, but does little to promote discipleship or proclaim the reign of God.
In this day and age, the empire has figured out that it can get along famously without the church. Individuals over the last several decades have been making the same discovery and leaving us in droves. Instead of inducing institutional panic, this development ought to be greeted with thanksgiving. Now that we are finally free from having to prop up Caesar’s kingdom, we can hear anew the call of Jesus to live under God’s gentle and peaceful reign.