By Bill Mefford
Each week (hopefully), I will look at a chapter in book of the Minor Prophets, moving through them chronologically. As it should be with the Prophets, I will reflect on what they are saying in their context and relate it to ours.
"Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty." Jonah 2:8
And now we come to what some see as the most important question to answer from the book of Jonah - did he really get swallowed by a whale. Obviously, that is not the most important question from this book, but it certainly is the one that most people talk about when any kind of discussion of Jonah comes up that I have heard. The question of whether or not to believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale (or some other big fish) usually is preceded by questions as to whether one actually believes Jesus walked on water or performed all of the the other miracles.
Personally, I could not care less whether one believes in the whale story or the feeding of 5,000 and everything else that Jesus did, with the exception of his physical resurrection. But, for the record, I am inclined to believe it all. Why not? I mean, if we are supposed to believe that God is calling us to eradicate poverty, redeem oppressive systems, rid the world of racism and violence, and all the rest (and I certainly that God does call us to do all of that), why the heck wouldn't Jesus walk on water? Walking on water seems a helluva lot easier than eradicating poverty. So, yeah, I am cool with the whale story.
Regardless of whether we believe Jonah was actually in the belly of a fish or if this was some mythological image foreshadowing the Messiah's three days and nights spent in Sheol, Jonah's safe sojourn to dry land from the stormy seas, via a large fish, shows God's sovereign ability to use even those things that mean us harm for our own good, as well as for the good of those to whom God has called us to. And all of this happened, by the way, while Jonah was actually fleeing God's call on his life, not when he was running towards it.
So, upon his deliverance from the stormy sea and the belly of the whale, Jonah offers a prayer of thanksgiving. But yet, he makes an interesting comment in verse 8, "Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty." It stood out to me when I read it for its simplicity and yet for the way it pierces through what is otherwise a prayer of adoration. Our true loyalty is to God, of course. But what are the vain idols that Jonah speaks of?
I know the vain idols I see every day - those idols I see the world seeking after (especially sitting in my office in Washington DC); power, affluence, and personal as well as national security. But I also see the idols that are so often sought after in the institutional church: societal relevance, institutional economic security, personal power and advance, are just a few to name.
Interesting how the vain idols so present in the church mirror the idols in the world, huh?
But this is a personal prayer by Jonah. This is not Jonah railing against Nineveh or Israel. The prophet is not a one dimensional character focused solely on publicly laying accusations against the powerful and the corrupt. I think sometimes we have either too romantic or too superficial an understanding of the prophet and the prophetic. First and foremost, the prophet is one who speaks for God and in so doing, the prophet must know God and be known by God.
Perhaps this is why Jonah prays this line, "Those who worship vain idol forsake their true loyalty." Perhaps Jonah was thinking of all he had put himself through as he vainly attempted to run from God's calling on his life: his refusal to go to Nineveh to carry a message of repentance. Maybe he realized that his refusal to go to Nineveh was born out of his own nationalistic bias: that he did not think the people f Nineveh were worthy of receiving a pathway to know the God of Israel.
We have a tendency to think of idolatry as contained solely in one's theological belief system and not also in our individual or corporate ethical engagement. But idolatry is whatever separates us from that which God has called us to. This means that our vain idols can be found in our nationalism, our racism, our classism, and our misogyny.
Perhaps this is how Jonah's prayer could have been read:
Those who pursue the vain idols of categorizing some as worthy of hearing a message of repentance while viewing others as unworthy forsake the real reason they were put on this earth.
Jonah's vain idols of nationalism are certainly familiar in our church today as we make judgment on the worthiness of those we serve as to whether they deserve our service. This truly is the greatest heresy in the church today. So, let us pray a prayer of thanksgiving with Jonah today. And in the midst of our thanksgiving let us pray for God's repentance and let it begin with our house.