Those who read Jonah incorrectly have a problem with Jonah. Those who read Jonah correctly have a problem with Yahweh. Many falsely think Jonah was sent by Yahweh to preach repentance to the Ninevites, then becomes angry when they do repent and are saved. Actually, Yahweh gives the prophet a message of destruction, not repentance: “Forty more days and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” Jonah becomes angry when Yahweh repents and, against his prophetic word, doesn’t wipe Nineveh off the map: “. . . Yahweh repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” Interesting that the only person in the whole book of Jonah who doesn’t repent is Jonah.
This once-every-three-year Jonah reading gives me the opportunity to quote my old professor, and world’s expert on Jonah, Hans Walter Wolff’s insight into Yahweh’s repentance. “God doesn’t have to be faithful to his word as long as God is faithful to his people.” To Jonah’s dismay, Yahweh’s word isn’t proclaimed in a vacuum. It comes only in a set of historical circumstances which, like anything or anyone limited by time, can change. Once change happens, then Yahweh’s word must be looked at from a different perspective. If we alter how we look at ourselves and others, then, as Jonah bitterly discovers, God can also change.
Because God’s repentance is triggered by someone else’s repentance, Wolff’s insight is terrifically important for all Christians. We hear in today’s gospel pericope that our faith life revolves around repentance.
It’s essential to remember that the historical Jesus created no religious institutions as we know them. He was driven to form consciences, not found churches. Scholars agree that Jesus one day simply shuttered his Capernaum carpenter shop and stepped into the role of itinerant preacher, going town to town, synagogue to synagogue sharing his idea of how we’re to give ourselves to Yahweh. Today’s well-known proclamation is at the center of every one of his instructions, homilies and sermons. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news.”
In this context, God’s kingdom can only refer to God present and working effectively in our daily lives. What people of faith have been longing for in the future, Jesus is convinced we can reach out and touch right here and now. There’s only one prerequisite for experiencing this terrific presence: we must repent; change our entire value system and actually believe God is active in the most mundane levels of our life.
The rest of Mark’s gospel is nothing but Jesus’ blueprint for undergoing true repentance, something the evangelist focuses on in our very next narrative: Jesus’ call of his first four followers. Though it’s important to concentrate on their immediate, generous response to his call, it’s even more important to concentrate on to what they’re called. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of human beings.” In other words, “People, not fish, will now be at the center of your lives.” Jesus is demanding his disciples do a 180 degree turn. Nothing or no one is to be more important than their fellow human beings.
Paul speaks about this turnabout in symbolic terms in our I Corinthians passage. “The world in its present form is passing away.” The new, Jesus-inspired worldview will be known for its emphasis on people.
Though few of us today are “fish-centered,” many of us might fall into the trap of being “institutional church-centered.” We forget that whenever a particular church teaching hurts people, we other Christs are obligated either to change or disregard that teaching. If we refuse to do so, we’re then obligated to take both the book of Jonah and any references to Jesus out of our scriptural canon.