Let’s explore these two readings and then spend some time reflecting on how they speak to us today.
You may recall the story: God tells Jonah, who lives in Judea, to go preach doom to the people of Nineveh. Walk on over there, hundreds of miles to the east and north in Assyria—you know, the country that has periodically invaded and oppressed your people. And Jonah says no. Not gonna do it. So he scoots off in the opposite direction, to the coast, and boards a ship headed for Tarshish. The ship encounters a violent storm and is in danger of breaking up. Jonah is tossed overboard and swallowed by a big fish. Watch out for those big fish. After three days, the fish coughs him up on shore. That is the point where our reading today begins. God says to Jonah, “Okay, so if you had read Psalm 139 [as we did last week], you would remember that I know where you are no matter how far you go to the ends of the earth. Now, let’s get busy. Off you go to Nineveh.”
Jonah, the grumpy, reluctant prophet, travels to Nineveh and marches through the streets proclaiming doom. He doesn’t even mention God, just says, “40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
And the whole city—even the animals—dons sackcloth to repent of whatever they have been doing (we’re never told what that is). God sees their repentance and decides not to smite them after all.
Jonah says no to God. The people of Nineveh—the sinners, the foreigners, the sometime oppressors of the Jews—they’re the ones who say yes. And God has mercy on them, which just ticks off Jonah no end. He wants mercy and second chances for himself—which he gets—but he wants those sinners of Nineveh to suffer. And it makes him cranky to have to proclaim this threat of doom to his enemies and then have God change plans and not smite them after all.
It used to be possible to make a decent living as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. The fish were abundant. You could feed your family and have fish left over to send to the processing plant in Migdala, where they would either be packed in salt or made into fish sauce and exported. But when Caesar Augustus died in the year 14, Herod Antipas, the king of the Jews, wanted to curry favor with Caesar’s successor, Tiberius. So Herod had a new city built on the Sea of Galilee and named it Tiberias, after the new emperor of Rome. Within a few years, the city of Tiberias became the center for managing the fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee. [I am grateful to Ched Myer and his article “Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice – Radical Discipleship for fleshing out the economic oppression of the fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day.]
Suddenly you had to have a lease even to have the right to fish, and you had to pay taxes and export fees. Almost all the fish went to the processing plant in Migdala, and the salted fish and fish sauce were all exported to wealthy Greeks and Romans. It wasn’t for the Jews anymore. Making a living as a fisherman gradually became a desperate existence in the lowest echelons of society. Families had to band together to afford the leases and other fees, which explains why we see Simon and Andrew working together as well as Zebedee and his two sons, James and John, a little farther on. The whole family has to collaborate in order for everyone to survive. And with that much more fishing, maybe the Sea of Galilee was being stripped of fish. You can feel the oppression and injustice everywhere in this set-up.
So along comes Jesus. John the Baptist has been arrested and is held in Herod’s palace, probably right there in the shiny new city of Tiberias. Jesus takes up John’s message of repentance and adds the message of God’s good news: God’s realm has come near. Repent and believe. Sounds like an update on Jonah: Repent, believe. God’s realm—well, everyone knows that God is all about justice. That would be a welcome change. New realm, fresh start. Repent of whatever binds you to the old realm and move forward.
Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Typically we read that as meaning saving souls. But an alternative sense is “Follow me, and we’re going to hook the big fish,” meaning they are going to topple the oppressors. Now that would be good news to these fishermen indeed.
One of the first to commit to Jesus is Simon. You may recall that Simon is later renamed Peter. And you may also recall that Peter is the sort to jump first and ask questions later. So Peter jumps—he’s all in for Jesus and this new realm of God. He’s ready to hook some big fish.
The narrative says they left their nets behind them. And it’s the same sense of release as elsewhere in the Bible where people leave their debts, their sins, their burdens—whatever binds them. They walk away from their old lives and start something new with Jesus. Ched Myers, whose article “Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” helped me understand this scene in a whole new way, says that the Greek word used for leaving behind the nets is thus a “Jubilee” word—a word that bespeaks setting free from what binds us and creating room for a fresh start.
It’s time for a fresh start. The people of Nineveh must have recognized that things in their big city were pretty messed up. Perhaps they had longed for change but didn’t know how to bring it about. Because they jumped when Jonah warned them that they had to change. They repented, God relented, and they got a fresh start. Jubilee. Clean slate.
The people of Galilee were crying out for a fresh start, too. Freedom from oppression, from impossibly high tariffs, taxes, and leases. Freedom from Rome. Freedom from Herod.
We are crying out for a fresh start, too. This week we said goodbye to one administration and hello to the next. Our new leaders recognize that there are plenty of injustices and problems: racial justice, economic justice, climate change, and—oh, that’s right—a pandemic.
Jonah and Jesus both come with a message of repentance. Jonah says, “Repent—or else.” Jesus says that God’s realm is drawing near. So at the start of a new year, with new government leaders but the same old problems, let us consider how we might repent, release ourselves from what binds us, and set about catching some big fish.
Let us catch the big fish of economic justice, for example. Housing gets ever more expensive, but the federal minimum wage is still around $7.25 an hour. With taxes, rent, groceries, and health care—you’ve got to get the whole family working in order for everyone to make it. Sounds like those fishermen, banding together for survival. Washington’s minimum wage is more than twice the federal level, but of course many people have no jobs at all since their businesses shut down for the pandemic. Tent camps have sprung up all over Seattle, all along the freeway. Let us repent of whatever role we or our society have played in creating such a system, and then find new solutions. We have had people sleeping on the porch of our church building and have tried to connect them with resources. I heard recently of a program through Mary’s Place where we could help furnish an apartment for a family moving out of homelessness. Some of us have continued steadfastly feeding the hungry through Community Lunch, even during the pandemic. These are great hands-on efforts. Let us also track legislation that could make a difference on the systemic level and find ways to support bills that could bring about real change.
Let us catch the big fish of this pandemic and health care. Vaccines are finally coming out—hooray! I know some of you have had your first shot. What a relief! This is how we take care of each other: get vaccinated whenever that becomes an option, continue to wear our masks and follow all the safety protocols. I’ve heard some Christians say that Jesus will protect them. Jesus didn’t even protect himself. One of the hallmarks of his ministry was his vulnerability. We are vulnerable to this virus, and so we do what is necessary to protect each other. I am also hearing that vaccines are being distributed globally in very uneven ways. The whole continent of Africa, for example, has yet to receive more than a token number of vaccines. We must embody the understanding that, until all are safe, no one is safe. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is how very connected we all are.
Let us catch the big fish of climate change. The very planet is crying out for a fresh start as salmon get fished and dammed to extinction. As the salmon go, so go the orcas, who depend upon salmon as a primary food source. Carbon emissions have risen beyond 400 parts per million, when the planet really can’t handle more than 350. Last week, as a parting gift, the previous administration opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for leases to drill. We can lobby our legislators to revoke those permits. We can shift to electric cars, put solar panels on our roofs, and address the funding so that low-income people can make these changes, too. As the pandemic shutdown has shown, having many more people work from home makes a small dent in our overall carbon emissions, but it will take much more to really turn things around.
Finally, let us catch the big fish of racism. The early European immigrants to this land, quoting the Bible, called for us to be “the city on a hill,” a shining beacon to all. One of the biggest stains on this grand experiment called democracy is our history of slavery and oppression of Black people and the legacy of racism that continues to infect our society today. Like many other churches last year, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we formed an Antiracism Book Group. We are now on our third book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, and find that we White people have plenty of repenting and waking up to do. So we are educating ourselves, discussing, reflecting.
And I close with two excerpts from the inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman, who knocked our socks off this week because she encapsulated these ideas before the country and the world this week:
And yes we are far from polished,
far from pristine,
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes, not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade
the hill we climb
if only we dare it.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover,
and every known nook of our nation and
and every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
(Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden’s Inauguration, Did you love Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem? Here is the transcript (msn.com).)
Let us be that brave. We could say no to God, like Jonah. Or we could say yes, like the people of Nineveh, like Jesus, like fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, like Amanda Gorman. The realm of God draws near. We are invited to be participants in that realm, to let our light shine for the benefit of God’s creation. Let us step free of all that binds us and move forward into a new day. Amen.