Below is a blog entry I composed for one of the few non-wonky-academic homework assignments I’ve had so far at Eden Theological Seminary.
New Life Church of the Nazarene and Grace United Methodist Church, I have a homework assignment for you. Do at least one outrageous thing in the cause of simple justice… with someone with a different faith background than yours. The books of the Latter Prophets are filled with the idea that God invites absolutely everyone to follow the values of God… absolutely everyone! The story with which you might be most familiar is the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who got stuck in a whale (or as the Bible says, a fish) when he was thrown overboard after trying to escape from the prophesy job God gave him. We mostly remember that Jonah got stuck in the whale and think that the moral of the story is listen to God and maybe you won’t end up in a giant fish, because wouldn’t that smell awful?
I’m going to challenge you to think about the other people in the story, the people who didn’t get stuck in a giant fish. In the midst of a storm, the sailors from Jonah’s boat pray, worship, and commit to Jonah’s God even when Jonah did a really bad job of being a prophet. When Jonah finally gets around to visiting Ninevah, the king of Ninevah immediately issues a decree for all people in Ninevah and their animals to ask God to forgive them in sackcloth and ashes. This is one of my favorite images in the Bible, because I can’t help imagining how cute it is for a donkey to be very sad in sackcloth and ashes. I just imagine Ninevah full of moping Eeyores.
The book of Jonah is a funny little book, not only because it makes for a fantastic Veggie Tales story, but also because it is the one book in the collection of Latter Prophets that really reads like a story. Everything else is made up of sprinklings of history, stories of prophets’ lives, awkward names that prophets give their children, foreboding declarations of disaster, interpretations of past events in light of God’s character, indictments against the nations for doing evil, and more. Not great for bedtime reading. Jonah sticks out from these other books of the Latter Prophets because it is a story unlike other stories, where people are super willing to change. The prophets lived crazy lives to make their point, sometimes being run out of their hometowns, sometimes eating food cooked over human poop, sometimes giving their children names like, “You ain’t my people, and I ain’t yo’ God…” Why? Because it’s hard to convince people to change, and in the Latter Prophets, prophets had to do crazy things to make a statement.
But in Jonah? Sailors essentially said, “We’ll change!” And the king of Ninevah declared, “We’ll all change!” And the people and animals of Ninevah expressed the sentiment, “We’re sorry and we’ll change!” So what’s the deal with Jonah versus the rest of the Latter Prophets? Why are people in the Latter Prophets so resistant to change, while Jonah is filled with people who want to change?
To answer that question, we have to look at the audience of the Latter Prophets. The prophets were primarily talking to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. Whether in Judah or Israel, the Israelites had a specific faith tradition that followed YHWH, their God who had given them the Torah (Hebrew for “law” and “instruction”) through the prophet Moses, who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who had promised their ancestor Abraham that his descendants would live in a Promised Land. These were a people who started out in tribes in tents and later became governed by leaders called judges, and eventually by kings. They shared experiences of oppression as they were enslaved by various rulers, their land was occupied by other people, and their right to worship was taken away.
But as the Israelites gained more power and wealth, and as their religious leaders and government became more organized, powerful, and wealthy, they began to do things differently. The book of Amos suggests that the cities of Zion and Samaria tried to become tourist destinations, to be known for raging keggers (or overflowing cups and bowls of wine as they might say), and for their awesome buffets. The book of Jeremiah describes the nation of Judah as a nation where people were apathetic toward causes of justice and did not care about seeking truth. The book of Isaiah showcases religious people in Judah who went to church, but refused to seek justice, feed those who are hungry, and house and clothe those who are homeless and poor, especially immigrants. The book of Amos even uses sarcasm to critique religious people in Israel who regularly went to church, and gave things and money to God, but also hated people who told them to change and supported high taxes for people with lower incomes.
The books of the Latter Prophets show that even religious people of the “right” faith tradition can get the principles of their religion all wrong. The book of Jonah is meant to be a huge contrast, to show that those weird, scary, different foreigners with the wrong religion can get the true values of faith in YHWH right, even better than the religious people and the kings of the “right” faith traditions. Sailors who hardly ever go to church can be better at avoiding the sin of pride. Even animals can be better than people in admitting that they are wrong. Poor, sad Eeyore.
The books of the Latter Prophets want us to look beyond our present reality and imagine a different future. In particular, the book of Isaiah describes a world where everyone gathers together to follow the values of YHWH, so that places where people worship YHWH can be called “a house of prayer for all peoples,” and where everyone, even outcasts of society, can belong (Isaiah 56:3-8). The book of Isaiah describes a church that is not only open to everyone, but welcome to everyone, a place for everyone to think about the ways they need to change and the ways they can make change in the world. More than that, the book of Isaiah suggests that church services are not where the most important worship of God happens. Instead, the most important way to follow God is through gatherings with all different types of people who are devoted to following the values of God.
But who is God? Don’t some people believe in many gods? What about people who believe in no gods? The book of Micah addresses this, with the Hebrew name of the prophet Micah literally meaning “who is God?” Micah 4:1-5 acknowledges the diversity of religious beliefs that exist: “For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the YHWH our God forever and ever.” The Hebrew word for walk is halak, which suggests a lifestyle. Even today there remains a Jewish ethical tradition, halaka, which refers to a walk with God. The Micah 4:1-5 passage suggests that some people have a lifestyle that represents the name of various Divine beings or the values of certain ethical or religious beliefs. And yet, following YHWH is another lifestyle that brings together those who are committed to representing the values of YHWH.
So what is the Venn diagram for people who follow YHWH and people who follow other Divine beings, ethical, or religious beliefs? Are they separate circles? Is there some overlap? Is it a complete, unified circle? The popular passage Micah 6:8 gives us an answer:
“YHWH has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
This passage suggests that for people who follow YHWH and for people who identify with other faith traditions, ethical standards, and spiritual practices, the Venn diagram can have some overlap, and can even become a complete, unified circle. The overlap is in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with whatever and whoever it is that keeps us humble. After all, we are all mortal, we are all limited, and we are all finite. We will all die one day. What better day than today to look beyond our present reality and imagine a different future?
So I invite you today to join with another person of another faith background (or more!) to do one outrageous thing in the cause of simple justice. Just one. You get to define what that “outrageous thing” is, and what cause of simple justice rings most true to you as embodying the values of YHWH. Some examples from the books of the Latter Prophets include:
[ ] Feeding those who are hungry (e.g. food pantry, home cooked meal, gift card, helping someone apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), supporting Meals on Wheels)
[ ] Housing sojourners (e.g. supporting a homeless shelter, recruiting congregations to host a rotating shelter, helping someone apply for Section 8 housing, paying someone’s gas/utilities/water bill, ensuring that older adults have working heating systems)
[ ] Clothing sojourners or those who have lower incomes (e.g. donating clothes and buying clothes from thrift stores, donating clothes to a homeless shelter or rotating shelter, donating money to shelters for laundry, offering your own laundry machine to someone else’s use, supporting job-readiness programs)
[ ] Welcoming immigrants (e.g. offering a place to stay, providing transportation to doctor’s appointments/visa offices/grocery stores, learning other languages, tutoring ESL students in English, helping people prepare for citizenship exams)
What are you doing for your outrageous thing in the cause of simple justice? With whom have you partnered to do this thing? What are you learning in the process?