If Tarshish is Timbuktu, What is Nineveh?
February 1, 2015
All over the Bible, people get up and go when God tells them to.
- Noah loads his family on the ark and sails until he can find another spot of dry land.
- Abraham and Sarah pick up and leave with nothing but a promise and a prayer.
- Moses heads back for Egypt with nothing but a shepherd’s crook and Aaron to write his speeches.
- Fishermen drop their nets.
- A man called Paul travels the Mediterranean spreading Jesus’ good news.
But not Jonah. Standing on the dock, waiting for the boat with a ticket for Tarshish in hand, Jonah doesn’t stop to ask questions or bargain or request clarification from the Almighty, he just turns around and flees. Tarshish was most likely in southern Spain: the end of the known world. It was as if you heard God’s call to go to Las Vegas and instead you bought a ticket for Timbuktu.
Jonah appeals to the disobedient child in all of us. Reluctant, withdrawn, stubborn, unwilling to yield to divine direction that asks more of him than he is willing to give.
Maybe there is a soft spot in our hearts for Jonah because we, too, harbor the dark hope in our hearts that some people – people of our own choosing – will get the punishment they deserve.
Jonah hopes the Assyrians of Nineveh will get what they deserve. Nineveh was a city on the east bank of the Tigris River in Assyria. The Assyrians were not too popular in Israel because in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., they plundered Palestine looting and burning its cities and deporting its inhabitants. In 722-721 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel passed out of existence as a result of Assyrian conquest.
In other words, to the hearers of the Jonah story, Nineveh was anathema, the object of intense hostility. "Go to Nineveh," says God. And Jonah says, "Anywhere, Lord; anywhere but Nineveh." So Jonah stands on the dock with a ticket for Tarshish.
We all have our enemies and some people have earned that status. Jesus said love your enemies. The late, great preacher William Sloane Coffin added this caveat: "Love them as enemies. Let's not be sentimental about this thing."
For Jonah, the enemy was the Ninevites. Who is it for you? What person or group of persons seems to you to be beyond God’s forgiveness? Who doesn’t deserve divine mercy?
Writer Anne Lamott writes about her enemy in her book Traveling Mercies. This enemy is not a murderer or conquering army, she is the parent of one of the children in Lamott’s son’s first grade class. So Lamott calls her “Enemy Lite.”
There were all these mothers who were always cooking treats for the class; they drove the kids on their field trips, and they also seemed to read all the papers the school sent home, which I thought was actually a little show-offy. Also it gave them an unfair advantage. They knew, for instance, that school got out early on Wednesdays; and they flaunted it, picking up their kids at just the right time, week after week. I somehow managed to make it into October without figuring out that little scheduling quirk.
Finally, though, one Wednesday, I stopped by Sam’s classroom and found him – once again – drawing with his teacher. The teacher said gently, “Annie? Did you not know that school gets out an hour early on Wednesdays?”
“Ah,” I said.
“Didn’t you get the papers the school mailed to you this summer?”
I racked my brain, and finally I did remember some papers coming in the mail from school. And I remembered really meaning to read them.
Well, my enemy found out.
She showed up two days later all bundled up in a down jacket, because it was cold and she was one of the parents who was driving the kids on their first field trip. Now, this was not a crime against nature or me in and of itself. The crime was that below the down jacket, she was wearing latex bicycle shorts. She wears latex bicycle shorts nearly every day, and I will tell you why: because she can. She weighs about 80 pounds. She goes to the gym every day, and she does not have an ounce of fat on her body. I completely hate that in a person. I consider it an act of aggression against the rest of us mothers who forgot to start working out after we had our kids.
The day of the field trip, she said sweetly, “I just want you to know, Annie, that if you have any other questions about how the classroom works, I’d really love to be there for you.”
I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.
My enemy called and invited Sam to come play one afternoon, Sam desperately wanted to go. She picked him up after school. When I went over to get him, she offered me a cup of tea. I said no, I couldn’t stay. I was in my fattest pants, she wore her bicycle shorts. The smell of something baking, sweet and yeasty, filled the house. But Sam couldn’t find his knapsack, so I got up to look around. The surfaces of her house were covered with fine and expensive things. “Please let me make you a cup of tea,” she said again, and I started to say no, but this thing inside me used my voice to say, “Well…OK.” It was awkward.
In the living room, I silently dared her to bring up school, or exercise. As it was, we had very little to talk about – I was having to work so hard making sure she didn’t bring up much of anything, because she was so competitive – and I sat there politely sipping my lemongrass tea. Everywhere you looked was more stuff – show-offy I-have-more-money-than-you, plus-you’re-out-of-shape stuff.
Then our boys appeared, and I got up to go. Sam’s shoes were on the mat by the front door, next to his friend’s, and I went over to help him put them on. And as I loosened the laces on one shoe, without realizing what I was doing, I sneaked a look into the other boy’s sneaker – to see what size shoe he wore. To see how my kid lined up in shoe size.
And I finally got it.
The veil dropped. I got that I am as mad as a hatter. I saw that I was the one worried that my child wasn’t doing well enough in school. That I was the one who thought I was out of shape. And that I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself.
This was me. She was the one pouring me more tea, she was the one who’d been taking care of my son. She was the one who seemed to have already forgiven me for writing a book in which I trashed her political beliefs; like God and certain parents do, forgiven me almost before I’d even done anything that I needed to be forgiven for. It’s like the faucets are already flowing before you even hold out your cup to be filled. Before, giveness.
One of the things that irked Jesus’ critics was that their enemies were not his enemies. The people they hated were not the people he hated. The ones they regarded as sinful were the ones he invited to dinner.
If you are trying to convince yourself that another person is not a full, valuable human being, you should be sure not to invite that person to dinner. As Oscar Wilde said, “After a good dinner, one could forgive anybody, even one’s relatives.”
One of the first people Jesus invited to join the Gospel movement was Levi, a tax collector. A tax collector. Tax collectors were the bad guys. They collaborated with the oppressive Roman government. They were part of the Roman system that heaped oppressive burdens on people. They dealt in filthy lucre stamped with Caesar’s image. Therefore, they were not only swindlers and traitors, they were idolaters. They were, in effect, Nineveh.
The Pharisees peered in the doorway and saw Jesus at Levi’s table. This was more than they could take.
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30) Jesus replied, in effect, “If you are well, you don’t need a doctor,” implying that those who are sickest of all are those who don’t know how sick they are.
Having eaten with tax collectors, Jesus then sits at a Pharisee’s table (Lk 7:36 ff.) There was a woman of the city “who was a sinner.” She went to see Jesus, taking with her a flask of sweet–smelling ointment to anoint him with. She wept, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, behaving in a manner most unseemly for either the holiness of a table or the sanctity of a prophet.
This was more than the Pharisees could take. “If this man were a real prophet he would know what sort of woman this is who touches him, for she is a sinner.” “What are real prophets for if not to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, the evil and the just?”
“A person has two debtors,” Jesus says. One owes him a dollar; the other owes him a hundred dollars. He forgives them their debts. Now, think hard: which one would be the most grateful?”
The answer comes hesitatingly: “I suppose, I expect, I guess…the one who owed the larger sum”
The implication is clear: The woman is so extravagant in her gratitude because she has been so extravagantly forgiven.
Those who were at table with him began to say to themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
Who is this? Who is this who dares confuse our tidy, simple categories of the saved and the damned, the sinners and the righteous? Who is this who breaks bread with those who know they are sinners…and those who do not know it?
Who our enemies are…and how we hope God will treat them…says more about us than anything it says about them.
John Wesley said that Holy Communion was not a self-congratulatory meal for saints, but rather a life-changing meal for sinners. After all, he reasoned, who ate with Jesus? Sinners. Some sinners were harlots, some were church leaders; some knew they were sinners, some did not. But they were all sinners, and Jesus called them all to dinner.
Therefore – counter to church policy of his day, and in many churches of our day, too -- Wesley said that “all earnest seekers” were welcome to the Lord’s Table. You don’t need to be a church member in good standing, you don’t need to be a church member at all, you don’t even need to be baptized. The only requirement was a desire to meet the risen Christ.
John’s brother Charles wrote these words:
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all humankind.
Every time we gather around this table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, we proclaim – wonder of wonders – that Jesus is still choosing the same kind of sinful, disreputable dinner companions that once got him in so much trouble. Jesus is still choosing us…and our enemies. God is still forgiving the Ninevites…
- and Jonah
- and the tax collectors
- and the perfect mothers in bicycle shorts
- and you and me.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all;
Come, all the world! Come sinner thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.
Janet Howe Gaines, "Jonah's Message of Forgiveness," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=434. http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_431_.html
Donn K. Rojeski. “Jonah: Deliverance and the Sovereignty of God.” Direction, April 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 2 · pp. 16–22
William Carl. “Tickets for Tarshish.” November 09, 2008. Day1 Radio program. http://day1.org/1118-tickets_for_tarshish.print
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. Anchor Books, 1999.