Lectionary Thoughts for Epiphany 3B (January 21, 2018)

Jonah cast over the side of the boat, Priscilla Catacomb, probably 4th century. Photo in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia. 

Jonah cast over the side of the boat, Priscilla Catacomb, probably 4th century. Photo in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia. 

Jonah is sneakily one of the weirdest books in the bible. On the surface, it is a story about a reluctant prophet who tried to get away from what God wanted but ended up saving his enemies from destruction despite himself. The story lends itself to depiction, meaning that it has appeared in everything from the earliest Christian art to the margins of medieval manuscripts to a Veggie Tales movie. 

It's a weird book because it seems to be a prophetic book, but it has almost nothing in common with other prophetic books. Where other prophetic books have pages and pages of oracles, Jonah mostly just tells the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Where other prophetic books rarely include narrative, that's mostly what Jonah is. And then there's the way Jonah plays with the character of prophets generally. Where people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos are dignified and important figures, commanding respect from contemporaries and readers alike, Jonah is kind of awful. He does what he isn't supposed to, and he doesn't do what he is supposed to. He drags his feet and gets petulant about his mission. He kind of hates the people he's been sent to save. And when his prophetic word succeeds--we see that in the lectionary this week--Jonah gets very pouty about it. He doesn't want to save the Ninevites. The Ninevites are the enemy. 

I think the book of Jonah is inviting us to question our categories. It plays with what a prophet is, what a prophetic book should look like, what our enemies are like, and what God's character is. It's an early expression of an idea that became more and more common in Judaism, which is that Israel's God was also the God of other people. Jonah, at the end, is the story of an Israelite prophet who spreads the word about God in spite of his own misgivings. 

As for the 1 Corinthians text this week, it's a strange one too. It's a tiny apocalyptic interruption into Paul's letter to Corinth. This is absolutely characteristic of authentic Pauline thought: Paul totally thought the world was ending soon. He expected it in his own lifetime, and fretted when it didn't happen on time (see 1 Thessalonians 4). This is the driving force behind Paul's ethics and ministry; he wanted to accomplish what God had set out for him in the short time he had, and his ethics arose from this sense that time was short. I'm writing a book about this right now; stay tuned for more! 

The Mark 1 text is part of the reset back to the beginning of the liturgical year. Here we see Jesus calling disciples, and their immediate and enthusiastic response. It's always a little jarring to me to see how quickly we get into Jesus' ministry life, and in some ways this week is the starting point, just a few weeks after Christmas. We'll get to know these characters--Simon and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee--as we journey through the year with them and Jesus. 

But there's something to be said for beginnings. My favorite parts of the Harry Potter books and movies are always the train scenes at the beginning. Everything that's going to happen in the story is incipient in that moment, on that train. That's how the gospel stories of the early parts of Jesus' ministry are; they set the tone, if you know how to look, for everything that comes after. For that reason, they're worth paying attention to. 

Eric Smith