Being human in Nineveh

A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany in January, 2021. The readings include the conversion of Nineveh by a reluctant Jonah, and Jesus’ call to his first disciples to come “fish for people.”

Nineveh was a byword, and the story of Jonah may be read as a parable. God’s relentless wrestling with the wickedness of the world, God’s pursuit of mercy run riot through the story.

Nineveh was a byword. Nineveh was Sodom and Gomorrah for foreigners. Nineveh was old Vegas, Gotham, and Deadwood rolled into one. Nothing good could ever be said to come out of Nineveh. Nineveh was like Chile under Pinochet, South Africa under apartheid. Robert Alter, in his new commentary to the Hebrew Bible, remarks that sending Jonah to Nineveh was “rather like sending a Jewish speaker to deliver moral exhortation to the Germans in Berlin in 1936.”[i] No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go there.

The thing about bywords is that they are short cuts. They only take you so far. They paint with a broad brush (to mix the metaphors).

But focus in on Nineveh, and you find the people. The shopkeeper who gives away his produce at the end of the day to the orphans in the alley. The mother who would do anything for her children. From the king’s palace to the shanties on the edge of the town, you find devotion and regret hidden under the weeds of wickedness. You find humanity, if you look closely enough.

Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He knew, he had heard the stories. But walking the city step by step, passing person by person in the streets, he soon learned to see the wood for the trees. He preached, as God had commanded him, the coming destruction of the city. And the miracle of it all was that the people listened, and they changed their ways. Faced with the consequences of their wicked ways, they turned to look for something better.

Is it possible that these people, evil by reputation and wicked by renown, were gnashing their teeth because they were hungry for the good news of God, the mercy of grace, the reconciliation of repentance?

Jonah should have been used to miracles, after the belly of the whale and all of that. Still, he was taken by surprise. Fear, rumour, judgement were hard habits to break.

It was not inevitable that the people or their king should repent. If they had not, there is no reason to suspect that God would not have pursued their obedience as emphatically as God stormed Jonah from the ship and into the great fish and onto the beach. There are consequences for running from the will of God, for running a corrupt country, for turning one’s back on the fate of one’s fellow humans, for failing to call out wickedness. For not following through on the commandment and promise to love every neighbour as ourselves.

If Nineveh had not repented, who knows how the story would have ended.

But Nineveh did repent, and the reason that this byword for sin and evil changed its ways, and its fine robes for sackcloth and ashes, is because a prophet, reluctant, inadequate, and very fishy, walked among them. Because he came to see them not as political cartoons, memes, or caricatures, he found himself acting as a human toward them.

Just so, when Jesus became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, sharing our life, our stories, our humanity, he brought us to our knees with the knowledge of the mercy of God.

There is something truly salvific in being human to another person.

Repentance is key. If Nineveh had not repented of its evil – if it had continued in the ways of greed, oppression, violence, and sin – then the story might have had another ending. But if Jonah had not walked among them, fearful, inadequate, and doing penance for his own attempts to evade God’s good graces, they might never have known that the mercy of God awaits those who are ready to repent and recognize it.

What if we had the chance to fish for a miracle? What if we had the good news that could change the ending of a story?

What if we, fearful, fishy, feeling somewhat inadequate, out of our own repentance, in fact had the power to change the world around us, simply by being human to one another, telling the truth with love and trembling, wherever we connect, online or in the grocery store or in our prayers?

I like Jonah. He has all of the flaws you need in a hero. He saved Nineveh, once he finally grasped for himself the persistent, insistent, and inescapable mercy of God. I love that he is a bit fishy, and that God send him anyway to scold the city with love.

And Nineveh repents, and is saved by the very human intervention of God, just as we have been.

[i] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, 2019), Vol. 2, “The Prophets”, p. 1289, commentary on Jonah 1:2

Featured image: Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), Jonah Under His Gourd. Date: 1561. Royal Collection, UK, via wikimedia commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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