Prophets and Punchlines: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 18 September 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 18 September 2011 (14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A)

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45  • Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8  • Philippians 1:21-30  • Matthew 20:1-16

I love teaching Jonah to adults, mainly because a Sunday school room full of adults usually assumes that, because their kids (or their friends’ kids) have related the six-year-old version of the story to them recently, they know what’s going on in the book.  There’s the boat, and there’s the fish, and there’s the sackcloth.  It’s the perfect sort of children’s tale, with all the seafaring adventure (and opportunity for stylized children’s-book animals) of Noah without the global genocide, all the preacherly courage of Elijah at Mount Carmel without the mass-murder of the Ba’al priests.  What makes Jonah so much fun for adults is pointing out what’s going on for the three-and-a-half chapters that don’t involve any fish.  Today’s reading wraps up that super-fishy part of Jonah.

The really fun part of Jonah, reading it as an adult, is the fact that there’s no ending.  After the grandest setup that any action-movie producer could imagine, after the grand facing-down of death in the sea-storm and the moment when the grand chaos-monster (the great fish is not Free Willy, people) and the proclamation of divine judgment to the most powerful city in the middle east, the main character, who proves to be an utter wretch, finds himself playing straight-man to God in a grand joke about a vine and a city.  And then it ends.  Jonah does not repent of his nationalism, of his hatred for the powerful persecutor, or any such thing.  Jonah also does not sink into his own hateful soul and deteriorate as King Saul does until his own death.  Instead, the book just ends.

And so the grand setup turns out to be the buildup to a punchline and nothing more.  It is a great punchline, though.  If you care so much about a vine that grew up overnight, how much more does God care about a city with thousands of people?  People who don’t know their right hand from their left?  (Until I checked the text again, I thought what they didn’t know had to do with a hole in the ground, but as it turns out, that’s not in the Bible.)  AND THE ANIMALS???

It’s the animals I like best.  After all, back in Jonah 3:8, after Jonah has announced the impending divine wrath, it’s not only all the people of the most powerful city in the world who put on sackcloth and cry out for mercy–the animals cry out, too.  I do wonder at how the king managed to convince the livestock to take part in the civic repentance, but I have to think that this dude is the one we need in the White House right now.  After all, we’re up to it on our own with problems too big to solve and people unwilling to repent and Washington populated mostly with dumb… nah, I won’t go there.

I know this post each week is supposed to be some meditation that might go into the preparation of the sermon, and frankly, I’m disappointed that I’ve never gotten to preach this text.  With Scripture texts like this, a preacher doesn’t even need to write new jokes.

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