Read with suspicion, I am struggling this week.
The first reading is all about Jonah doing what God wants. It misses all the interesting things about what happens when Jonah misbehaves, and if we only had this part of the story we would see his relationship with God as very respectable and conflict free. Jonah’s message here is one of doom and destruction. God is displeased and the city will be destroyed. There are many parallels with today that we could misuse this text to fit (and people do). It’s bleak and authoritarian, it’s call is to follow God out of fear not joy.
I used to get seduced by the Jonah story, to the point where as a teenager I tried to change my name to Jonah. I guess I was attracted to the security of being Jonah. Jonah can make any mistake, go off in any wrong direction and God will bring him back like a straying toddler, making use of a huge fish or a plant to teach a lesson. Jonah may suffer some unpleasant experiences, but has an element of invulnerability within that. I didn’t at the time stop to unpack how toxic such a relationship with a codependant and controlling God in fact would be. I couldn’t follow what I saw as my vocation (to the priesthood) and so I trusted God that somehow I, or the people blocking me would be swallowed by a huge fish and it would all come out right in some nebulous future.
I did not then accept the implications of free will, that in fact we are called but not forced to follow God and we all hear the call differently and argue over what it means and there is conflict and struggle, loss and failure. The story of Jonah does not allow for these, suffering in the story is temporary and can be corrected by turning back to God.
The second reading is also a dangerous snippet of the sort of “doom and gloom” content that churches overuse and misuse. It can feel true for any generation and any time, and that is perhaps the first lesson to learn, that when the end seems nigh, people were feeling just the same centuries ago! However that way of thinking can also lead us to too blithely dismiss the possibility of real “end times” inherent in the fact of climate change. God is not going to mysteriously put us or our leaders back on the right path if we stubbornly persist in destroying ourselves. Death and suffering are real, and become more probable when we abuse nature or each other.
What I take from the second reading, is the need to stand back to some degree from social “truths” (like marriage, celebration, grief, property, use of nature). These everyday “realities” are human constructions and therefore able to be questioned. I find it interesting that use of wives (no mention of husbands), property and nature are all lumped together…there seems to me (perhaps only seen through a 2018 lens) an admission there that what needs liberation from us and our social structures (or “truths”) is women and the earth as well as the distribution of resources. Also that there is something unpredictable in what we feel, we may not always experience the emotion we are “supposed to”.
In this context I find the gospel interesting. John has been killed. Is Jesus sad and lonely? Is his calling of the fishermen as much about needing friendship and connection as anything else? How was it for Zebedee to be left this way? This story seems to follow on from the second reading, in that they are leaving their structured lives of labour and family hierarchies (but also possibly affection) and seeing a better or more imperative future possibility. If Zebedee and fishing represent “the way we have always done things”, it is pretty daring of them to follow Jesus instead, but faced with climate change we as a society need to have that daring, to turn our backs on capitalist “tried and true” ways of being and seek liberation.
I say that so blithely but it is not an easy thing to see each step or to follow it. We may not all agree on exactly how to proceed to have the best security for the most human beings, but the fact that so many are already suffering (and threaten to become a flood of the dispossessed and hungry…I refer both to refugees and the increasing numbers of poorer and poorer people within our own relatively wealthy society) is a clear sign that we need to seek liberation for humanity. Liberation is not just this modern, atomistic idea of “empowerment”, where you think positive and like Boxer from Animal Farm work harder. Liberation is for me and “thou” for each person who is in any way entangled in my life (and the whole globe’s population is increasingly tangled together by lines of relationship or exploitation).
Perhaps I am feeling bleak because I have to work on my political campaign at what is usually my favourite time of the year, and I am missing out on sunsets at the beach. Perhaps it is just hard to feel positive because all of us are so overworked and people seem to think heaping hatred and blame on those who stand up for the environment and human rights is somehow justified. But the readings seem every bit as crosspatch as I am feeling. So I will still squeeze out a grumpy little prayer…
You know by now that I am not Jonah, that I don’t do what I am told.
That I may need mentoring and advice but can’t stand being used
as a puppet for someone else.
Not even you, bold and impassioned Word.
You have seen by now
that those social structures-
patriarchal marriage, capitalism, consumerism,
neoliberal cancerous growth
leave me cold,
that I don’t know how to smile when I am told
or weep when I am prompted.
It is good news indeed to me
if oppressive structures could pass away.
So I guess I could leave things,
most things not all
because I sure as Heaven am never going to leave my children
even for you
and you taught me that I can’t leave my self.
I guess I’ll come with you, who have lost a loved one
to recognise each other’s broken heart,
to hold each other’s hand on the long road,
to somewhere uncompromising and brave.
But I am not really brave yet.