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Evensong      10th March 2019
Jonah, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Jan Rushton

Lent 1  Year C  Evensong 2019  Jonah - Pharisee & Tax Collector

Readings:  Jonah 3;  Luke 18.9-14

The Book of Jonah is part of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Literature which cuts across the theology of the historical and prophetic books: Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos - and all the minor prophets - Deuteronomy, the book of the Law, how the people are to live together as decreed in the Covenant, topped and tailed with fierce curses if the people disobey. 

The repeated explanation in the rest of the histories, that ferocious defeat by other nations is the punishment meted out by God for the disobedience of his people!A message and theology summed up by the homespun wisdom of: 

Watch out! You’ll reap what you sow! 

Though we may not realise it, this is the theology we are claiming  when we ask the question in the face of tragedy: Why me? What have I done to deserve this?  Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people!

If you wonder what on earth those curses are doing there, issued from the mouth of our loving God, then we need to make some attempt to get into the mindset of three thousand years ago.   Most early human societies,

faced with an unpredictable world, understood their world to be orchestrated by capricious gods and goddesses, visiting upon them: whirlwind, locusts or drought, on a whim. The result of such thinking was superstition and the practice of magic, the offering of sacrifices to appease the gods and gain their favour. 

The revelation of God to Abraham and ultimately the people of Israel, rejected all such thinking: nothing is capricious here, God has ordered creation, and it is orderly. God loves, takes care for, the world God had made.And God is not in need of persuasion to do so!

The rigorous understanding that we reap what we sow asserts this order, and those curses, the threat of disaster for failure to obey God’s Law, the curses resist superstition.  Although primitively cast, this is an important understanding which will eventually lay the foundations many centuries later for the development of science. 

But of course as we know, this is far from the whole story. Bad things do happen to good people. Suffering is not always the result of sin - as Jesus firmly tells his audience. Into this recognition, a new genre in Hebrew scripture emerges: Wisdom literature.  Books like Ruth and Jonah, written in the post-exilic period, subvert the rigorous theology of Deuteronomy. Though there was indeed, always an element of subversion in early Hebrew Scripture - as we see in a culture which put great store by the firstborn son, the writers of Genesis prioritised the younger son, passed the promise to Abraham down through Jacob the trickster.

The saga of Jonah is a subtle text, with many nuances and twists. Nineveh is the mighty capital of Israel’s arch enemy, Assyria! It boasted astonishing palaces and was renowned for its ‘hanging gardens’. And Assyria’s emperors had annihilated the ten northern tribes of Israel - the ten lost tribes.  Under the tutelage of the prophet Isaiah, King Hezekiah of Judah had held his nerve - and miraculously, Sennacherib’s army besieging Jerusalem had melted away.

Not surprising then, that Jonah is mighty reluctant to go prophesy to the Ninevites, warn them of impending doom that they might repent and be saved. For if warned and they repent, as Jonah knows well, God will be faithful to his promises, turn back his wrath  and save the people.  Deuteronomic theology at its finest!  In the short story of Jonah, the unnamed king, and the people of Nineveh, do indeed, repent.   Jonah is furious. This is precisely  why he was so unwilling to go warn them, 

to obey his God whom he knows to be merciful, for he does not want these people to find salvation! In a serious grump he wishes to die. But in a subtle twist to the story, God challenges Jonah to understand God’s deep concern and love for the people of Nineveh - for all people, whether they be friend or historic foe.

This story speaks into our instinctive tribalism: our, often unconscious, exclusion of those who are not ‘one of us’. Much easier to find our security in a strong exclusive identity. On their return to Judah following exile in Babylon, life was tough for the Judaites, the Jews. And, under the leadership of the strict Ezra and Nehemiah a rigorous new and rigid adherence to the Law was imposed, with a strong emphasis on purity. An order seen as essential to their flourishing back in their homeland. Nehemiah forbade marriages to foreigners, while Ezra went further, decreeing that foreign wives were to be divorced and sent away. Into this situation the books of Jonah and Ruth come into existence, becoming - astonishingly - even part of sacred Scripture.

The story of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, looking forward to the kingship of David. Ruth, the foreign - Moabite - daughter-in-law of Naomi, will go on to marry Naomi’s relative, Boaz, becoming the ancestor of Israel’s great king! Thus putting a foreigner right at the heart of Hebrew history! In exile in Babylon, the Jews have come to understand that their God is the only one God, the God of all peoples. As they return to a narrower viewpoint, the story of Jonah reminds them of this truth.

Similarly in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector,  Jesus is challenging the accepted wisdom of his day as to status in society, as to expectations about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’! Challenging those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.  Challenging accepted notions of ‘purity’. Championing the understanding that everyone is beloved of God, Welcome at God’s table.

Here Jesus in teaching about prayer. The Pharisee is in effect, praying to himself, he feels in little need of grace. While the tax-collector, so conscious of his short-comings,  and whom the Pharisee perceives as quite ‘beyond the pale’,  makes no comparison of himself with others. In contrast to the Pharisee who believes himself close to God, it is in reality the outcast tax-collector to whom God draws close, who is declared justified before God.

As we set out into our Lenten journeys,  let us pray for our ourselves and for our Church, that we might understand what this means: that our God is the God of all peoples, and does not operate on the basis of our private needs, on the basis of any desire on our part for exclusive club membership. Within the Church there are a rich variety of approaches to God, whose primary call is to ortho-praxy, practice, rather than orthodoxy, right belief. A love of God expressed in genuine respect and love for neighbour, in establishing a world built on justice tempered with mercy. As we bring the concerns, the longings of hearts to God this Lent, we may all know that we are met by a loving God who wills us forward. Amen.

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