Small Steps on a Large Journey

3 Epiphany B, Mark 1:14-20

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed.

“What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?”

The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear.

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We can smile at her predicament.  But wait.  What is that massive, overwhelming pile of worry that blocks your path?  What is that giant load of doubt that paralyzes you?  What is that task too great to even contemplate?

If you think about those questions, then you are ready.  You are ready to stand next to Jesus’ first disciples.  You are ready to hear the Master’s voice.  You can begin to see the large journey of small steps.  For that is what it means to be a Jesus follower.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus announces that God is on the move.  The Kingdom of God is at hand!  And Jesus is the one to make it happen.  So he recruits followers.  They are the foundation of God’s renewed people.  They are the evidence that things are changing.  They will cast God’s nets to rescue a world drowning in sin, death and evil.

Notice the invitation.  “Follow me!”  Jesus invites them to take the first small step on a large journey—just the first step, nothing more.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

In college I spent time as a dedicated atheist.  The result was days of drunkenness, disorder and despair.  I considered putting an end to such a miserable, pointless existence.

At that moment God spoke three words to me.  “There is more.”  I listened and took a small step.  Then one day, God spoke three more words to me.  “Go to seminary.”  Again I listened and took a small step.  I had no vision or command or destiny beyond that one step.  At that moment, one small step was a huge effort.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So the first question is this.  What is your next small step?  It likely doesn’t involve seminary, although for a few of you that may be a waystation on the journey.  More likely, the call is to much smaller steps.

Who is the person who needs to hear my apology?  What is the regret that needs repair?  Which habit must I change?  Which service may I offer?  What risk should I embrace?  What dream shall I trust?

What is the next small step on your larger journey?

Timing is important in such questions.  Sometimes the next step means waiting.  The first disciples were the latest in a long line of waiters.  God’s people had looked for the right Messiah for centuries.  Pretenders and posers had come and gone.  Some people had stopped looking, stopped hoping.  Expecting turned into emptiness.

 Then Jesus appeared.  “Follow me!” he said.  The waiting was over.  Waiting is preparation for acting.  When the time is right, disciples take the next small step.  Hesitation can derail the journey.  Failure of nerve can foil the plan.

So here is the second question.  What are we waiting for?  If we are waiting, then we must be preparing for the next small step.  It can be hard to wait, but sometimes it’s necessary. As I write, for example, my beautiful spouse is painting our kitchen cabinets. They are so beautiful. But it takes time for drying between coats, sanding, touching up, and re-hanging. She can see the end in her mind, but Reality is taking its own sweet time.

What are you waiting for? Sometimes the best counsel is, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” At other times, the best counsel is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Discerning the time is one of the most important things we can do. So waiting always requires patient and humble prayer. There are moments when God’s reality takes its own sweet time.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out alone.  He says, “Follow me.”  Where we are going matters less than who is going with us.

The one who goes with us is the Master of the journey.  He has been to the cross and back.  He has entered the tomb and burst free from death.  He took the worst evil could offer.  He exhausted sin and death, and sent Satan packing.

That’s our travel guide.  He goes ahead of us to clear the way and guide our steps.

At our best, we listen for his large words to shape our small steps.  So here is the third question.  Will Jesus guide your small steps on the large journey?  That’s why prayer and patience, worship and study, matter so much.  How can you take the trip if you won’t read the map?  Jesus shows us the next small step—if we take the time to listen.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Of course, direction matters.  Most people are lost—but they’re making really good time.  Life works best when we walk toward God’s goals.

That’s what we take from that biblical comedy called Jonah.  Jonah runs in the wrong direction.  And his life becomes a shipwreck.  So it is for us.

God’s direction is always away from selfishness and toward service.  God’s direction is always toward compassion and away from hatred.  God’s direction is always toward love and away from fear.

The more we focus our energy and efforts on the needs of others, the better this church business gets.  There are those moments of almost effortless service.  There are those moments when we seem to get it right.  Those are the moments when we are moving in God’s direction.  That’s what it really means to be blessed.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So here is the final question today.  Where is God trying to bless you as you follow Jesus?  Where is God trying to bless us as we follow Jesus?  The Holy Spirit calls us in our baptism to seek the answers to those questions.  That’s where the blessing is.

One of my favorite prayers is a from the ELW service for times of travel.  Let’s close with that prayer.

O God, our beginning and our end, you kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, you led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star you led the magi to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide us when we travel. Make our ways safe and our homecomings joyful, and bring us at last to our heavenly home, where you dwell in glory with our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021 — 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

I would not read this text in worship unless I planned to preach on it. If one wishes to do so, then the preacher needs to refer to the brackets Paul places around this section of the letter. In verse seventeen, Paul writes, “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you. This is my rule in the churches.” This is the thought that conditions Paul’s counsel that people shouldn’t make any radical career moves because things may be changing soon.

That brings us to the other bracket, in verses 31b and 32a. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties…” Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on the reign of God free from distractions. He wants their undivided attention devoted to the work of the Gospel. Not even concerns about the nature of the Resurrection should shake their vision, as we read in chapter fifteen, verse fifty-eight. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Photo by Shaun F on

The preaching challenge, therefore, is twofold. On the one hand, we must translate Paul’s apparently “conservative” view of the need for social and personal change into our contemporary key signature. On the one hand, the present form of this world is always passing away. Jesus is Lord!

On the other hand, it has been passing away for two millennia and may continue to pass away for millennia to come. We have rejected enslavement of other human beings (at least officially in most nations). We have begun to embrace some measure of equity for women and people of color (at least officially in most nations). We are beginning to chip away at white male supremacy as the cornerstone of our cultural and political systems (well, perhaps in theory, anyway). We need to help people see that all that change that is consistent with Paul’s overall view and that this view does not require a static social structure.

I find Arland Hultgren’s words in his commentary helpful here.

“Amidst these examples, it is helpful to put side-by-side two words: “disengagement” and “engagement.” In his ethical thinking, and in our passage for today, Paul calls upon persons of faith to disengage from the world and its ways of living. One should step back and see how being entangled with it can be a captivity preventing one from living the new life in Christ. But that is not the end of the matter, for we continue to live in this world and have to deal with it. In Paul’s way of thinking, disengagement is not an end in itself. Rather, being disengaged and set free, a person can engage the world from the perspective of being one who is “in Christ.”

Perhaps Paul’s counsel to us is to “hold lightly the present form of this world.” We invest ultimate concern in things that are of limited value. For example, we maintain a death grip on our settled certainties and our limited worldviews. We grasp power, privilege, and position as if they would guarantee us anything. We are witnessing a fight to the death to maintain the hegemony of white male supremacy, not only in our politics but in our culture as a whole. All of these forms of this world are passing away. In our anxieties over that passing, we double down on our idolatry and make the temporary permanent.

This discussion is certainly consonant with the accounts of Jonah and the first disciples, even though their responses are diametrically opposed. Can we allow ourselves to be changed by events and experiences? Can we relinquish our self-interest, self-absorption and self-centeredness for the sake of God’s reign? Can we release our settled views of the world in favor of God’s desire to have mercy on all? Can we surrender our power, privilege, and position for the sake of faith, hope and love? This is how we can apply Paul’s perspective in the here and now perhaps.

I think of the story of Ray Christensen as an inspiring example of one who held lightly to the present form of this world and was willing to be changed by events and experiences. Ray Christensen became, unintentionally, one of the “stars” of the 1966 American documentary film, A Time for Burning.

The film, directed by William C. Jersey and commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) explores the efforts of Pastor Bill Youngdahl to engage his all-white congregation of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, in exploring real, person to person relationships with members of Hope Lutheran Church, an all-Black congregation just three blocks away. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the 1967 Academy Awards and remains a chilling indictment of our denomination’s failed efforts at real multi-racial partnership and ministry.

Ray Christensen “became fascinated with photography in high school and pursued his interest in the U.S. Navy,” his 2016 obituary reads. “After his service, he returned to Omaha and began a career in photography and animation. In 1966 Ray shifted his focus to filmmaking after appearing in A Time for Burning. Ray was a member of the social ministry committee at Augustana and became an advocate for the efforts to foster personal conversations between willing couples in the white and Black congregations. The effort was soon rejected by the congregation, and Youngdahl left not only Augustana but also the Lutheran Church in America. Youngdahl continued to advocate and work for racial justice in another denomination for the rest of his life and ministry.

The experience reported in A Time for Burning, changed Ray Christensen for a lifetime. Bill Jersey became his mentor and lifelong friend. Christensen created documentary films in Omaha and then moved to Minneapolis to continue his work. Let me quote his obituary for a summary.

“Ray’s passion for telling human stories took him around the world — to Africa, where tribes worked to preserve their precious water supplies; to East Germany, where he brought to life the historic impact of Martin Luther; and to Bethphage Mission in Nebraska, where developmentally challenged people strove to reach their incredible potential. One of Ray’s favorite films, The Wilderness World of Sigurd F. Olson, captured the beauty of northern Minnesota with Olson, the noted author and environmentalist. Ray’s films inspired people to see the ordinary in new and unexpected ways.”

I didn’t know the story of Ray Christensen, but I used his work in my own efforts to bring change to congregations. Ray partnered with the author and futurist, Joel Barker, to produce a film called The Business of Paradigms. This was an outstanding training film to help organizations understand the imprisoning power of existing paradigms and the liberating energy that came from getting outside our current boxes. His obituary notes that the film “became one of the most influential training programs in the world.” I can testify that it helped hundreds of parishioners and dozens of congregations to consider different ways of being and doing church.

Christensen is an example of someone who was able to hold the forms of this world lightly. He understood that our power, privilege, and position are always passing away. My heart breaks every time I see him growing in his awareness of his own complicity in a racist and unjust congregation. It breaks even further and starts to heal a bit when I hear him wonder what will happen if and when the church fails to let go of our broken and sinful racism. “Ray’s legacy is summed up in a belief he shared throughout his life,” his obituary concludes, “’Never lose your sense of wonder. Always be curious.’”

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, is now one of the most progressive and justice-oriented of our congregations in the metropolitan area. We can let go of the forms of this world and begin to make constructive changes if we are willing to face who we are and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us. While Bill Youngdahl was not permitted to lead the congregation into a different future, he and Ray Christensen (and other brave folks in that place) began a process that has born the fruit of faith, hope and love.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the work being done in our own Nebraska Synod by the Racial Awareness, Reconciliation, and Engagement (RARE) team in the synod. They have produced study materials connected to the film that are available on the Nebraska Synod website.

The film also features a much younger Ernie Chambers, before his days as a Nebraska state senator. Chambers tells the truth about the church and white people. Even as we can celebrate the changed hearts of some folks in and through the film, we can see that the great majority of us haven’t let go of a thing yet. In manifold ways, our grasp of white supremacy and the accompany privilege, has tightened even further.

To cling to our views of the world in the face of contradicting narratives is a violent act and requires violence to sustain it. That was true in the film, even if that violence was couched in the gentlest of terms. It resulted not only in the ouster of a faithful pastor but in the maintenance of systems of segregation and oppression that continue to the present moment in Omaha, Nebraska. That violence has invaded the halls of our federal congress in ways that Black people and people of color have known intimately for four hundred years and more.

If we maintain our death grip on the forms of this world even as they are passing away, then other people will die to pay for our delusions and denial. That is the state of things in United States of America as I write. There will be no peace without the repentance that results in relinquishing our narratives of white supremacy. There will be no peace because violence is required to cling to and sustain those narratives.

For the present form of this world is passing away.” Will we release our white supremacist death grip on these dying systems, or will we die with them?

References and Resources

A Time for Burning (Full Documentary).

A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey.

Berge, Paul.

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition).

Hultgren, Arland.

Hultgren, Stephen.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources.

Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021, Mark 1:14-20

Keep in mind the situation of the first listeners to Mark’s story. They were, perhaps, candidates for Christian baptism who had finished their instruction in the faith. Now, they were at the worship service where they would leave behind their former lives and follow Jesus. One of the first parts of the story they hear is this call to the disciples to leave everything behind and walk into the unknown future.

Before we jump to the call of the first disciples as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel reading, we need to stop at verses fourteen and fifteen. John was not “arrested,” as the NRSV translates it. John was “handed over.” If you hear a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own arrest and execution, then you have well-tuned scriptural ears. “Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being ‘handed over’ raises the specter of Jesus’ death,” Stephen Hultgren writes in his commentary. “For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning,” he notes, “under the shadow of the cross.”

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“Notice how Jesus picks the moment to act,” N. T. Wright suggests. “As long as John was announcing the kingdom, down by the Jordan, Jesus could bide his time. But when John is put into prison, he knows it’s time to act” (Wright, Kindle Location 359). Mark constructs the narrative in this way. He will come back to John’s handing over later in the gospel. For now, the chain of events is enough.

John proclaimed the Coming One. Jesus proclaims that the appointed time has been and is being fulfilled. The reign of God has come near and is now at hand. The proper response is twofold: repent and believe in the good news. It doesn’t take long to get from these words back to our first lesson and the response of the Ninevites. The Greek grammar in this verse lends itself well to a “now and not yet” understanding of the coming reign of God.

“It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology),” Steven Hultgren writes. “It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.”

Wright suggests that the content of this repentance has a clear historical reality for Jesus’ first listeners. Wright says that Jesus’ call to repentance meant two things: “turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war,” and “calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God.” (Kindle Location 368-369). If this is the case (and I believe it is), then repentance is more than a sense of personal sorrow and regret and a promise to do better. It is a reorienting of one’s life around a new set of loyalties, agendas, and priorities – God’s loyalties, agendas, and priorities.

One could wonder aloud what sorts of repentance are being called forth from us today? I suspect we are called to repent the unholy alliance between white supremacy and American Protestant (not just Evangelical) Christianity that has determined power dynamics on this continent since Columbus arrived. I suspect we are called to repent the worship of neoliberal economic theories which make the “invisible hand” of the market more of a god than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect we are called to repent the sexism, genderism and heterosexism which make a particular kind of maleness into godness. Mary Daly was correct, after all, that if God is male then male is also god. There’s more to consider, but this is a start.

We Lutherans have something to contribute to the conversation at this point. Readers can’t help but wonder at the “immediate” response of the disciples to this call. Commentators speculate endlessly on the psychology and politics and personalities of the disciples that made this possible.

Theologically, we Lutherans would point to the gracious and life-changing power of the Word of the Gospel. “Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard,” Paul Berge writes in his commentary. “But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even ‘immediately’ as pure gift.”

Berge points to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article in Luther’s Small Catechism to explicate this. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.” Just as the Hebrew prophets found the calling power of the Word irresistible, so do the disciples. Jonah may have been able to flee the first time, but the call of God will not be denied.

Hultgren suggests that the pivot to the call of the disciples “illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like.” It is worth examining what sort of break with past and parents happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. “Apart from pilgrimage, both geographical mobility and the consequent break with one’s social network (family, patrons, friends, neighbors) were considered abnormal behavior,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “and would have been much more traumatic in antiquity than simply leaving behind one’s job and tools.” (page 179). All social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is” (Kindle Location 348). If the first disciples are presented as models and examples for that imagined baptismal candidate (and for us), the picture presented is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

There is some disagreement about the economic situation which the first disciples were leaving behind. Larry Hurtado suggests, “the impression one gets here is that these four men were partners of small (or perhaps large!) businesses. They were in all likelihood ‘middle class’ economically, for the Zebedee brothers, at least, had employees in their family business (1:20)” (page 25).

Malina and Rohrbaugh disagree with Hurtado regarding the economic situation of the first disciples. “Mark, however, specifies that they left their father with the hired hands (1:20). This does not necessarily imply that these families were better off than most,” they suggest. “The tax farmers often hired day laborers to work with contract fishermen.” (page 180). So, the extra help may have been hired by their bosses rather than by their own company. This seems the more likely scenario.

While interesting, these economic details don’t impact the radical break from family and village that Jesus calls forth. Wright suggests that this part of the story connects us with the larger scriptural story of leaving family behind in response to God’s call. “The way Mark tells the story sends echoes ringing back through the scriptures, the larger narrative of God’s people,” Wright notes. “‘Leave your country and your father’s house’, said God to Abraham, ‘and go the land I will show you.’ Abraham, like Peter and the others, did what he was told, and went where he was sent. Mark is hinting to his readers that the old family business of the people of God is being left behind. God wants a new poetry to be written,” Wright concludes, “and is calling a new people to write it.” (Kindle Location 351)

“Jesus was now calling them to trust the good news that their God was doing something new. To get in on the act, they had to cut loose from other ties and trust him and his message,” Wright continues. “That wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now. But it’s what Peter, Andrew, James and John did, and it’s what all Christians are called to do today, tomorrow, and on into God’s future” (Kindle Location 374).

Last week we listened in as Nathanael was invited to come and see and thus to relinquish his prejudices and presumptions, his hollow hatred of the other. This week, we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words regarding discipleship – that when God calls a person, God bids that one to come and die.” That may be the literal case for some Jesus followers. It is certainly the liturgical and sociological case for all Jesus followers. Walking toward Jesus means walking away from our dependence and reliance on any other way to find meaning and purpose in our existence.

That is the real significance of our baptism. We return now to that baptismal candidate, hearing this story in its fullness as a preparation for the plunge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans in chapter six of his letter. It is, of course a rhetorical question. They know because Paul told them.

Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To walk in newness of life does not mean keeping all the old life as well. It means entering into the Resurrection here and now and living in that reality. Living in that reality means, among other things, extending the invitation to others who might be interested in dying and rising in Christ.

What is revealed in repentance? Repentance reveals the killing power of life without God. And it reveals a new path of faith, hope, and love for those willing to entertain the possibility.

References and Resources

A Time for Burning (Full Documentary).

A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey.

Berge, Paul.

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition).

Hultgren, Arland.

Hultgren, Stephen.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources.

Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B 2021–First Reading, Part 2

First Lesson: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This is one of the shortest and most effective sermons in the history of preaching. But who wrote this little sermon? In the other biblical prophets, we hear many of the precise words the LORD wants the prophet to speak. Here, we are not so sure. Is this little sermon Jonah’s personal and original composition?

The message is a simple declaration of doom. It contains no description of remedial action. It offers no hope of reprieve. The verb is in the passive voice and specifies no actor. It may sound like much of the bureaucrat-speak that fills our modern political discourse. “Mistakes were made,” or “Shots were fired.” The message is designed to fail.  And it has precisely the opposite effect that Jonah intended.

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Jonah seems to be unaware of the LORD’s whimsical qualities. The word for “overthrown” can refer to destruction and demise. It more often refers to change or alteration or even transformation! This verb, writes Philip Cary, which is also applied to Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, “can also—unfortunately for Jonah—mean conversion and being turned into something new.”[1]

Cary lingers on this ambiguity in his commentary. Who is fooling whom at this point? Does Jonah already know the LORD’s intention to spare Nineveh? He later protests that he did know about this in advance. So, Cary suggests, it may be that Jonah manipulates the LORD’s message to have the most lethal implications and the least chance of success. Or is it that the LORD gives this bit of prophetic double entendre to the unsuspecting prophet who then feels used and cheated later?

Or do we witness both things at once, as Cary suggests. “There is room to wonder whether, in the very content of the message,” Cary writes, “Jonah was trying to pull a fast one on the LORD—and whether what actually happened was that the LORD pulled a fast one on Jonah.”[2] The “old switcheroo” is a staple of comedy in all times and places. Is that what we witness in God’s word through Jonah to Nineveh? I think it is precisely what we experience here.

This goes a long way in explaining Jonah’s furious indignation in chapter four. The LORD has fooled him and left him in embarrassed rage. Is the LORD intentionally cruel to the cranky curmudgeon? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that this comeuppance is the last best hope for Jonah’s heart. Perhaps the LORD has drawn the prophet into what Marcia Reynolds calls “The Discomfort Zone.”

Reynolds reminds us of the brain science that demonstrates how much of our lives we spend on “autopilot,” that is, engaged in automatic and unreflective mental processes. We think we are in charge of our thinking most of the time. In fact, most of the time we are walking through the well-worn ruts that make up the majority of our life scripts. We leave those ruts only with a tremendous expenditure of energy and no small amount of whining and complaining.

“To help people think differently,” she writes, “you have to disturb the automatic processing.”[3] By this she means that we have to put people in unfamiliar places and positions. This will never make anyone particularly happy. The Discomfort Zone is that place where our life maps are called into question, where we experience disorientation, where we have to re-evaluate our settled assumptions and beliefs. “This is best done,” she continues, ‘by challenging the beliefs that created the frames, and surfacing the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping the constructs in place.”[4]

Barbara Green amplifies this point in an article in the theological journal, Word and World. “Jonah is closer to a parable than to an event that happened; it reads better in the wisdom genre than as history. It is a narrative of experience offered within the story to a character and then from the whole story to readers. Its genre provides narrative experiences constructed and offered so as to jolt us out of old certainties and into fresh appraisals of problems.”[5]

“To jolt us out of old certainties and into fresh appraisals of problems”—can you think of a better way to describe what is happening to Jonah in our little comedy? I cannot. From the moment of the LORD’s first call, nothing has been nailed down for Jonah. His cherished worldview has been called radically into question. Worse yet, the questioning happens through comedy. The audience is being disarmed as they laugh along with the writer. We are never more vulnerable to suggestions of change than when we are having a good laugh together.

Nineveh isn’t the only community in danger of being “overthrown.”

We need, therefore, to discuss now the first audience for this little comedy. When we discuss the empathy erosion of the post-exilic community, it is necessary to understand that community better. So we need to take a small journey through the events after the return from Exile. The returnees arrived back in Judah sometime between 538 and 535 B.C. But it wasn’t until about 520 B.C. that reconstruction work began on the Jerusalem temple.

We can’t wander too far afield, but we must take note of the role of the Samaritans in this conversation. Biblical accounts and Biblical scholars differ on the makeup of the Samaritan community. It is likely that this group was made up of the descendants both of Israelites who were deported neither to Assyria or Babylon and descendants of imported foreign colonists from a variety of locations. The Samaritan community (or some subset of local non-exiles) offered in 536 B.C. to assist with the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, but that offered was rejected. Thus the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and a history of hatred was launched. That history expressed itself several times in Jesus’ life and ministry.

We can situate the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah at about this time as well. Haggai’s oracles take place over a period of just a few months in 520 B.C. Zechariah’s pronouncements continue from 520 B.C. to 518 B.C.  Both prophets demanded the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple and predicted God’s vengeance on the surrounding nations. Zechariah, in particular, expresses concerns over the worship of idols among the returnees. This may be a connection to Jonah’s song in chapter two.

By 445 B.C. the Temple had been rebuilt, but the walls of Jerusalem had not been reconstructed. Nehemiah is appointed by the Persian king as governor of the area. He comes with both orders and funds to rebuild the city walls. “Instituting social and religious reforms, Nehemiah championed the cause of the poor, regulated tithing, enforced Sabbath observance and forbade foreign marriages” (Oxford Annotated, New Testament, page 416). Ezra the Priest followed Nehemiah. He enforced the Jewish law and “fostered Jewish endogamy” (Ibid).

A chief concern, therefore, of the post-exilic community was national, ethnic and religious integrity. For us, those might be separate concerns. For the returnees from Exile, these concerns were identical. It would not be surprising if these concerns led to some obsessive paranoia about the presence and power of non-Jewish elements of the population. Those elements may in fact be non-Jewish immigrants.

Or we may need to look no further than the Samaritan community to find the hated enemy. Remember how Jesus himself described the grateful Samaritan in Luke 17:18—““Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except for this foreigner?” The word for foreigner refers someone of alien origin.

The other place where this word is used, at least for our purposes, was on a stone block at the boundary in the Jerusalem Temple between the “Court of the Gentiles” and the inner Temple precincts. That limestone block was rediscovered in 1871. The engraving states, “No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the temple zone; whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” Samaritans appear to have fit into that proscription.

So, Samaritans or strangers? In the end, it makes little difference to the argument that sustains the Book of Jonah. Our little comedy is written in a time of intense xenophobia. And it argues that the LORD will not be a party to such raging fears and their consequent genocidal resolution.

The Book of Jonah and the Book of the Prophet Joel have some strong similarities of vocabulary. We will examine some of those in the next chapter. For now, we can say that Jonah and Joel are having an intertextual “conversation” in the Old Testament. Many scholars place the Book of Joel in the Persian Period, after the return from Babylonian Exile. The Book of Joel was likely written sometime between 450 and 350 B.C. It may be that the Book of Jonah was written at about the same time.

We can see that the post-exilic community is surrounded by enemies and competitors who would love to see the whole restoration project fail. Those who stayed behind during the Exile and the earliest returnees intermarried with non-Jews and thus have threatened the national, ethnic, and religious integrity of the post-exilic community. These intermarriages resulted in allegiances to multiple deities. In addition, some of the returnees may have brought with them a mixed religious background including Babylonian and/or Persian deities. It is always safest to worship the winners’ god. And the returnees were focused on getting themselves settled and secure. They had little time and energy for temples or walls—at least if we are to believe Haggai and Nehemiah.

Threatened from without and insecure within—is it any wonder that the post-exilic community might have developed an obsessive paranoia when it came to outsiders? Could it be that the Book of Jonah was written as a comedic counterbalance to such perspectives? And is it any wonder that this little book has such resonance and bite in a post-911, post-Katrina world?

The people of Nineveh didn’t wait for a word from the authorities. A disaster was approaching, and they responded. This response takes place from the “greatest” of the people to the “least” of them. The Book of Jonah recalls another conversation partner at this moment. We can hear echoes of the prophet Jeremiah at this moment.

In chapter thirty-one, the prophet comforts the exiles with a vision of the new covenant that the LORD will make with Israel and Judah when they return from their sojourn. It will be a covenant written on people’s hearts, rather than on stone or parchment. Verse thirty-four should get our attention. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’,” Jeremiah promises, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…”  The Book of Jonah may reverse the order, but the vocabulary is the same. The New Covenant is at work in Nineveh! The last part of Jeremiah’s promise is the good news in it all: “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Here’s your sign (yes, I like that sort of comedy as well). Gentiles hear the good news of forgiveness. They respond with repentance and faith. They teach each other, from the least to the greatest. And the ones who should hear the message are furious.

[1] Philip Cary, Jonah, Kindle Location, 2776.

[2] Philip Cary, Jonah, Kindle Location, 2353.

[3] Marcia Reynolds, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, page 3.

[4] Marcia Reynolds, The Discomfort Zone, page 3.

[5] Barbara Green, “Beyond messages: how meaning emerges from our reading of Jonah,” in Word & World 27 no 2 Spr 2007, p 149-156.

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition).

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021

This Sunday offers the only reading from the Book of Jonah in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. I think it borders on homiletical misconduct to miss the chance to preach on Jonah today. Of course, I have been teaching on the Book of Jonah and writing about it for the last twenty years, so I may be less than objective. In the spirit of my enthusiasm, I’ll begin my weekly reflections with the grumpy son of Amittai. Today and tomorrow, I’ll share some excerpts from my little book on Jonah. In the process, since it is the season of Epiphany, we can ask a pointed question. What is revealed in repentance?

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Can anything good come from Nineveh? Let me offer a rough and ready summary of the book of Jonah.  Our standards are not God’s standards.  We are not privileged to prescribe what God should or should not do with God’s creatures—human or otherwise.  Our convenience, our self-interest, and our limited perspectives cannot and should determine the scope or application of the grace, mercy and transforming power of God’s compassion.  Chapters three and four of Jonah describe how the prophet gets one more chance to come to terms with this reality.

Photo by Elianne Dipp on

Jonah is called a “second” time. The adjective comes from a verb that can mean to “change,” to be different from a previous state, or to “repeat, do something again.” On the one hand, this is not a new prophetic call but rather a repetition of the first call. Perhaps now Jonah is ready to consider the nature of that call. At the end of chapter two, Jonah promised to go to the Temple and pay off his vows (whether in gratitude or grumpiness we cannot be sure). It seems, however, that the LORD is not interested in such a transaction.  We hear no more of it.

On the other hand, Jonah needs to get it right this time. So, the call comes “a second time.” Limburg notes that this is not the same “second time” as we might find, say, in Jeremiah, where the prophet gets a new assignment after the first one is completed. “Only Jonah among the biblical prophets,” he says, “has to have his assignment given to him twice!”[1]

“As one reflects on the theological significance of this short scene, the Lord’s patience immediately comes to mind. Without exhortations, without carping or harping, the Lord reissues the charge that was given to Jonah in the first place. This act of reassigning without accompanying critical commentary is an illustration of the characteristics of the Lord soon to be stated in 4:2.”

Jonah appears to get a “do-over,” a gracious reprieve. A second time is also a second chance.

Jonah is, however, unable to extend that same graciousness to the Ninevites. This massive failure of empathic imagination is breathtaking to observe. It is also commonplace among humans.

I find the work of Simon Baron Cohen so helpful in this regard. In order to deal with human evil in a more measurable way, he suggests that we use the term “empathy erosion” rather than the more metaphysical term, “evil.” In simplest terms, Cohen suggests that empathy erosion “arises from people turning other people into objects.”[2] He traces that insight back to Martin Buber. I would suggest that the Book of Jonah is a tragic comedy that illustrates the empathy erosion of the post-exilic community in Judah.

Empathy requires seeing life from the perspective and position of the other. So the experience of empathy is a function of moral, spiritual and emotional imagination. It is a function of how we choose to see the other. Cohen writes, “Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.”[3] When we can see the other in the same light as we see ourselves, then we have the capacity for empathy.

When we exercise empathy, to reverse Buber’s insight, we turn objects into persons. And, Cohen as points out, we have a sort of binocular vision. We see ourselves and other at the same, and in the same frame. “When empathy is switched off,” Cohen continues, “we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too.”

It is time for clarity. Jonah longs for genocide. Jonah is not unusual in this desire. The genocidal impulse is as old as human hatred. “What is modern about genocide or about mass violence is the embarrassment about it,” says University of Amsterdam Professor of Social Science Emeritus Abram de Swaan, the author of The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder.[4] Jonah hopes that the hated Ninevites will be removed from the pages of history and the annals of existence. He has deleted them from his moral imagination (if they were ever there) and consigned them to oblivion. He has turned those persons (including the animals) into objects. How does this happen?

If you think this is a topic for academic study, then you are living in a sealed jar. We Americans are now routinely on the receiving end of such epic empathic failures. This is, in part, how the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001. This is, in part, how hostages are beheaded on videotape by members of the so-called Islamic State. This is how people are used to send political messages from one organization to another at the cost of their lives. The victims are vehicles for information. Their executioners have ceased to see them as persons.

Of course, this is also how white people kept slaves for hundreds of years. This is also how Europeans deprived Native Americans of land and birthright. This is also how Germans annihilated Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, while keeping impeccable records. This is how Hutus murdered Tutsi “cockroaches” in Uganda, how Muslims were slaughtered in the Balkans, how Armenians were exterminated in Turkey, how the Khmer Rouge butchered and buried over two million in Cambodia.

Jonah is hardly an outlier.

Of course, that is our deepest wish—that somehow these murderous monsters are themselves nonhuman in some significant way. We strive to distance ourselves from such acts and such actors. We would never do such a thing, we tell ourselves.

We are wrong.

Simon Baron Cohen builds on the work of other explorers of evil. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect, is best known for his (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment. In that experiment, he randomly divided graduate student volunteers into prisoners and guards. The details are fascinating and troubling. The outcome, however, was that quite typical people were turned into unfeeling bullies. The experiment had to be halted out of concerns for emotional safety.

Zimbardo’s work would have remained an academic curiosity had it not been for the events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At that prison, the Stanford experiment was given a real world run for its money. Once again, quite typical people were turned into dehumanizing torturers. The difference this time was that the results of the “experiment” were splashed across print, broadcast and internet media around the globe. The line between good and evil is not between “them” and “us.”

Other experiments and experiences reinforce this point. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and others have studied in depth the lives of ordinary Germans under the Nazi regime. Goldhagen dubbed them “Hitler’s willing executioners.” He and others have shown that these ordinary German citizens did not cooperate in the Holocaust under the fear of imprisonment and death. In fact, when they resisted, they did not suffer many repercussions at all. Instead, they participated willingly.

Stanley Milgram carried out his (again, in)famous Obedience Experiments around the time that Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for Nazi war crimes. Milgram wondered if the Nazi defense of just following orders could stand up to scrutiny. The result of the experiment was that quite typical people could be induced to administer what they thought were horrifically painful shocks to relatively innocent people, as long as some authority figure told them it was all right to do so. The participants continued to deliver such shocks even when the subjects appeared to be screaming in tortured pain.

Our “empathy switches” are fragile devices that can be nudged toward the off position far more easily than any of us would care to admit. They get nudged toward the “off” position when we limit our vision of who is human. In an interview with Alvin Powell, Professor Abram de Swaan notes, “One could, with many caveats, say that certain characteristics are more likely to occur more frequently with genocidal perpetrators. For example, they have a working conscience, [but] restricted to family, their superiors, and their comrades-in-arms. Everyone else doesn’t count.”[5]

[1]James Limburg, Jonah, page 75.

[2] Simon Baron Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Kindle Location 170. It might interest you to know that Cohen’s brother is the comedian, Sasha Baron Cohen. Sasha has made a career of ridiculing bigots, particularly with his character, “Borat.” Confronting evil in creative and stimulating ways appears to be sort of the family business!

[3] Cohen, Kindle Location 265.

[4] Quoted by Alvin Powell at


Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition).