Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10;1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
The story of `Jonah and the Whale` ranks alongside `Noah`s Ark` as one of the classic bible stories, and amongst the few that children continue to know today. It was indeed composed as a story, not a historical journal of events, but a story with a message exaggeratedly designed to have impact. It was probably written in the post exilic period of the 5th century BCE as a protest against the exclusive and racist proclamations of the high priests (as seen in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah from that era). They were upholding that God`s people needed to be pure Israelite Jews, by following certain practices even to getting rid of foreign wives. But the author of Jonah portrays God as wrestling against this narrow ethnocentrism, eventually convincing readers that the radius of God`s liberating activity is wide enough to cover both Jew and Gentile, Israel and foreign lands alike.
The implication is that it`s not so much the people of Nineveh who need converting or turning around as the thinking and attitudes of the Israelites themselves. Four hundred years later Jesus was continuing to challenge such exclusivity backed by purity codes and temple practices by calling people to repent/turn around and engage with God`s domain in a much broader social context.
I guess we could also think of Jonah as a reluctant missionary unlike those I recently heard about on my recent cruise to Vanuatu and Fiji. And no, I didn`t see any whales! Our first stop was at Mystery Island where, apart from magnificent beaches and wonderful snorkelling, you can have your photo taken in a big cannibal pot complete with fierce warriors. Unfortunately that was indeed the fate of the first missionaries who arrived in Vanuatu in 1839. Then on Fiji, the reality of ancient life was enacted for us at an Arts and Crafts village. As well as dancing and singing, we saw and heard how the fierce and frequent warfare between tribes would end in the winners killing and cooking the losers. And how war clubs were designed specifically to crush human skulls and break bones.
Fijian patriarchal stratified society was and continues to be ruled by a chief who formerly could have up to seven wives, one for cooking, one for doing his hair, one for bathing him, etc etc. But on his death the first wife would be strangled and buried with him. It was also common practice in early Fijian villages to kill off men and women who were old and sick who could no longer play a useful role in their society. So why am I telling you all this? Because we also heard about the amazing influence that Christianity has had from the mid 19th century in these Pacific Islands.
The early missionaries deplored many of the barbaric practices, especially cannibalism, which was rampant throughout so much of Polynesia. They devoted much of their attention to stamping it out, with some losing their lives. They also persuaded and that on the death of a chief it was sufficient for the first wife just to cut off her little finger to put in his grave, and later on it was a lock of hair. The missionaries ended up having a profound impact on the structure of society in both Vanuatu and Fiji, bringing education, medicine, basic trades as well as the message of peace and salvation through Jesus Christ. And here we see the real sense of `salvation` in its meaning of `liberating` and `freeing` and its link to social justice and human rights. It also reminded me of the role of Celtic missionaries in ameliorating barbaric practices in Europe 1500 years ago.
Fiji is strongly Christian now with everyone going to church on Sundays`shops all shut`and then gathering with their family to have a lunch feast afterwards. In this era of denigrating Christianity, we need to remember these histories of how it only takes a few people believing in Jesus` concept of God`s kingdom based on of peace and compassion to have a huge impact on tribal and national norms. Which is why this universal message continues to be good news to so many.