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Rowing With Michael

Verse 15, Israel and the Nations: Jonah and Ezekiel

Jonah was not a tasty dish. Alleluia. 
He didn’t sit well with a hungry fish. Alleluia. 
Finally he obeyed the Lord’s command. Alleluia. 
Then sat and pouted on the desert sand. Alleluia. 
  
Why was Jonah upset with God? 
  
Ezechiel got a big surprise. Alleluia. 
He didn’t think dry bones could rise. Alleluia. 
If God could do that for those dead men, Alleluia. 
God’s chosen people could live again. Alleluia. 
  
Why did God choose Israel? 
  
In our day we have come to know and appreciate at least a little many cultures other than our own. It’s hard to accept that God would choose just one nation,
 Israel, out of this dazzling variety of peoples and cultures in the world. But that God did choose one in particular is a central part of the beliefs of Jews and Christians.

Ezechiel’s vision of dry bones coming together, taking on muscle and skin, and coming alive shows how strongly the Jews of his age held this belief. Even when they were no nation, held in bondage in the Babylonian Captivity, they clung to their scriptures and to the visions and words of their prophets, encouraging them to trust that God had not abandoned them forever. 
  
But this belief was also a problem. The author of Book of Jonah had to oppose the way Jews of his day thought about being chosen. The character Jonah learns, to his dismay, that the God who chose the Jews also cares about other people. 
  
Early Christians had a similar problem, especially when Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles (anyone who wasn’t Jew) got into the act. But first the question about Jonah. 
  
What was Jonah mad about? The whole story is very funny. I think the Jewish author thought he had to write in that style because his point was so very contrary to what Jews wanted to believe. Here’s the story: 

God commands Jonah to preach repentance to the citizens of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians were everything you can imagine bad about empires. Their evil deeds included plunder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. They did away with the whole Northern Kingdom of Israel and seriously compromised the Southern Kingdom, forcing the king in Jerusalem to pay tribute in order to avoid annihilation. 
  
Jonah thinks, “Those Ninevites will never repent. . . . But what if they do? God will let them off the hook just like that.” So he takes off in the other direction on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea. 
  
The ship runs into a fierce storm and is in danger of sinking. The sailors cast lots to see which one on board offended his god, and the lot falls to Jonah. They throw him overboard, the storm ceases, and a big fish swallows Jonah. 
  
Jonah is regurgitated after three days and, much chastened, goes on to prophecy in Nineveh: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He’s still assuming, hoping, they won’t repent. But they do. Even the king, along with everybody else, sits in sackcloth and ashes—animals too; and they all go on a long fast. God relents and Nineveh is spared. 
  
Jonah goes off and sits down and sulks. On day one God makes a bush come up over Jonah to give him shade and Jonah is very happy about the bush. On day two God appoints a sultry east wind and a very hot sun and also a worm to destroy the bush. Now Jonah is really angry about losing the bush, angry enough to die he tells God. God has the last word: 
  
"You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" 

  
God is not the God of Jews only but of other peoples as well, and also animals. 
  
The Jews knew God promised Abraham, “In your seed all the communities of earth shall find blessing”; but they didn’t believe that should be happening yet—not while Judah was subject to a foreign power. They expected the nations to be blessed through them, through a restored and renewed and finally faithful Israel. They had visions of foreigners streaming into a mighty and prosperous Jerusalem to worship in their temple. Jonah was upset with God because he was committed to this picture, and God apparently wasn't. 
  
So what does it mean to be “the chosen people of God”? Why did God choose Israel? If God can bless people outside the borders of the Promised Land, what difference would it have made if there never had been an Israel? 
  
Here’s the same issue as the early followers of Jesus experienced it: 

In the years after Jesus’ death a group formed within Judaism with some new beliefs. There was nothing unusual about that, but this one was quite a bit more open to non-Jews than any Israel had seen before. There were people like Paul going out and actively encouraging non-Jews to join the new community. Soon the very identity of the group was at stake. Should the foreigners be required to accept the provisions of the Jewish law, the Torah, especially the law about circumcision? 
  
Paul had been preaching a non-circumcision gospel—Gentiles could be followers of Jesus without becoming Jews. He was working without the knowledge or approval of the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem, mainly Peter and James. So fourteen years or so after he started this ministry Paul and his Gentile coworker Barnabas went to Jerusalem to explain themselves.  The “pillars” agreed to let Paul and Barnabas carry on with their message to the Gentiles while they ministered to the Jews. 
  
Peter, who had given “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas at this meeting, some time later found himself enjoying “table fellowship,” a meal with roots deep in Jewish history as well as in Jesus’ life and death, with Paul’s Gentile converts in Galatia. People from James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, came with some message that Peter perhaps misunderstood. He had been having second thoughts about this new gospel of Paul’s anyway. Now he suddenly withdrew from the table fellowship with the Gentiles. In a further shock to Paul, a wavering Barnabas followed Peter. (It’s not known whether Barnabas went through with circumcision.) 
  
Paul laid into Peter on the spot, calling him a hypocrite; but the issue wasn’t settled in the minds of the poor Galatians yet. After Paul left Galatia others from Jerusalem continued to insist on the necessity of circumcision and following the whole Jewish law. (They didn’t necessarily know that they were opposing Paul. Paul explains that he had only recently divulged his policy to those in Jerusalem so probably many there were unaware of it.) Paul’s answer is preserved in the Christian Bible as the “Letter to the Galatians.” Eventually Paul’s view was sustained.

 As a Christian learning about this argument 2000 years later, I always knew, of course, which side I was rooting for. But that doesn’t mean I knew what the fight was all about. I assumed that Paul wanted to make it easier for more people to join the new church. Actually Paul was more concerned about a very different problem—people wanting to join because of the attractive “oriental” feel of this new religion with exotic new practices. The harder the holier, they thought. 
  
Paul warned his Galatian converts that the Jewish law would be a curse for them. It seems a strange statement coming from a strict observer of that law, which Paul was. But Paul knew well, from the example of some of the Pharisees and, especially, the wealthier Sadducees, how the law could separate people from each other, the “holier than thou’s” from the rest. I think this lesson must have really hit home when he realized what he had been doing in his own misguided zeal for the law, namely, persecuting the followers of Jesus. 
  
Paul’s lesson was that God wants to be the God of all people, but not by making them all the same.  Jews always believed the first part. The story of the blessing of Abraham shows God’s intention to bless all peoples. But they were confused about the second part. When Peter wanted to force the Jewish law on the gentiles, he was not just limiting who could join the Jesus movement. In Paul’s view he was limiting God’s reign. Peter wanted to enlarge God's tribe but still keep it a tribe. 
  
So why did God choose one tribe, the Jews? After all, God could bless the Ninevites without requiring them to become Jewish. And what’s this about Israel living again when Paul can say to the Galatians, “Don’t follow the Jewish law”? Christians have said that they are the new Israel, the new chosen ones; but too often that just meant a new law, a new way of dividing people. Only lately have we realized—officially in Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council—that God’s covenant with the Jewish people, our older brothers and sisters, is not over. Sure, the Jews were unfaithful and strayed from that covenant. (And what about Christians throughout our history!) Jewish scriptures have recorded their unfaithfulness and also God’s determination to accept them back.

I think it’s fair to say that both Jews and Christians, their descendants, are God’s chosen people. I think the Catholic Church’s claim to be the “one true church” is best understood as another way of saying “chosen.” It certainly doesn’t mean we have all the truth—we’re still learning. It doesn’t mean having an inside track on the race to heaven. There are as many ways that God can save as there are cultures on earth (plus, maybe, millions more on other planets). But God has a reason for Catholics or Christians or Jews—chosen people. 
  
As I see it, God was not satisfied with a general presence in creation. This is the presence that Thomas Aquinas compares to the way an artist puts himself or herself into a work of art. Of course, the artist only arranges pre-existent materials while God creates from nothing; so God’s presence in creation is much more thorough than the comparison suggests. Still such a presence of God in all things everywhere and at all times makes God a stranger in our thoughts in one of two ways. 

  • Either (first way) we will think of God as whatever all things have in common, which is not very much. God is as abstract an idea as you can get, far removed from us. We think of ourselves as particular, concrete beings, a product of particular combinations of time and space, ethnic heritages and personal histories. We sometimes imagine some universal quality or ideal that brings us all together. Some version of the Golden Rule is pretty common, but it’s only a common denominator. It’s too general to have any impact. We are particular beings living in the midst of a million different particularities. “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” is not a prescription for sharing a meal together. 
  • Or (second way) we will have to imagine God as a union of all the qualities of everything that ever existed or will exist. God has the speed of a cheetah, but he’s also slow like a turtle. God sings like a bird and is quite as a mouse. God is solid as a rock and wild as a hurricane, gentle as breeze and delicate as a flower. God is tall and short, wide and narrow. God is every color that you can find on human skin. God is Irish and German, Native American and African and Asian. God beats with the heart of a woman and that of a man. All the rest of us are tall or short or medium, one color or another, one ethnicity, man or woman. By being everything, God is totally unlike anything or anybody else.

God is either so abstract as to be nearly impossible even to think—though philosophers have tried—or an utterly strange combination of everything. At least, those are the ways we would see God if God had not decided to be more than a creator and more than just universally present in creation. 
  
The new thing that God decided to be is a savior. That the world (the earth, that is; I’m not sure about other planets) would need a savior was not at all predestined but is a historical fact occasioned but not necessitated by one of the mysteries with which the creator endowed human beings—free will. If we had not sinned and had nothing to be saved from, I believe God would have done something like what he did do, anyway—but it would have been a lot easier. 
  
C. S. Lewis calls what God did a “daring” move. Paul calls it “emptying.” I think of it as self-denying and other affirming. God decided to join the historical process on earth, not only as a presence throughout history and the cosmos but as one historical fact amidst all the others on one small planet. God, who encloses in himself everything that Being can possibly be, chose to be this and not something else, there and not some other place, then and not some other time.
  
God chose, out of the vast temporal and spatial span of the universe, a tiny speck. In  the history and geography of Earth, God chose not much more than a thousand years out of 5 billion and a few hundred square miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. God chose a mixed collection of people—farmers escaping the collapsing rule of tyrants, nomads, and possibly escaped slaves from Egypt—who eventually became a cohesive ethnic group with a culture we know as Jewish. Out of this group (if Christianity is correct) God chose a single individual, a carpenter of rather low estate, a man who lived only into his mid 30’s. In Jesus God gave up all the other possibilities—the other sex, other colors, other sizes and shapes, other occupations and social statuses, other cultures—for a career as only one of each of these human variables. 
  
It was emptying and self-denial on a grand scale. It affirms everything. By having a particular location in time and space, God says “Yes” to every other cosmic fact, which necessarily has only one particular time and place. By being historical but not all of history, God says “Yes” to every other historical movement that is only part of the whole. By being only the one size and shape of a particular human being, God affirms the mountain and the ant and everything else with its particular material embodiment. By having a particular occupation, social status, and especially culture, God is just like all the rest of us human beings, who can’t possibly be everything but are limited to particular occupations, statuses, and cultures. By being only one sex God is just like each of us, man or woman, who necessarily are one sex or the other. (I think this thought counts heavily against at least one of the reasons the Catholic Church gives for its all-male priesthood.) 
  
The problem at the beginning of this commentary was why God should choose one culture and, presumably, ignore all the others. It seemed unfair. But sharing equally in all cultures, being “fair” to everyone, means not having a culture at all. Having one culture is the best way to affirm all. It’s the blessing to all the communities of the earth that God promises in the Abraham story. It’s the only way God could be one like us, one of us, as opposed to just being with or in the whole human race equally. God blessed the whole human condition by adopting Jewish culture and becoming incarnate in one Jew, Jesus. 
  
There’s no explaining why God’s choice of a culture landed on the Jews. God is deliberately mysterious as to the reasons for his choices. Being chosen does not mean being better than somebody else, as the God of the Bible proves by choosing some pretty unexpected protagonists. God didn’t choose the Jews because their culture and their ideas about the world were better or truer than anybody else’s. 
  
God wasn’t starting a new culture, either, replacing whatever culture these people had with “the truth.” The Bible wasn’t that kind of miracle. Like any human product the Bible contains much that is of lasting value and much that needs to be corrected historically, scientifically, and even morally and theologically. God simply took up a place in one corner of the world and expects the world’s other corners to do their part. Imagine Paul’s table fellowship expanded to include a whole world of peoples and cultures, all contributing their own special graces. 
  
            People from North, South, East, and West, Alleluia, 
            Coming together, all are blessed. Alleluia. 
  
At this point the story turns darker. Paul’s welcoming table, echoing God’s “Yes” to everything genuinely human, contrasts sharply with much Christian practice. Wars were fought over who had the “right” religion. Jews were separated into ghettos or banished or killed or forced to convert. Indigenous religious practices were condemned. Christianity had become too Roman, and Roman customs and the Latin language ruled. Even today Christianity, not just in its Roman Catholic variety, bears an entirely too European stamp to speak convincingly God’s “Yes” to a multi-cultural world 
  
But brighter parts of the story are also there. Today, while Christianity declines in Europe, it is advancing in much of the rest of the world—Africa, Latin America, and Asia, including Russia and China. We could be in for interesting times as the center of Christianity shifts to the South and East. Christian churches are making sincere commitments to dialogue, with each other and with other world religions. Among some fundamentalist groups you can still find missionaries who think it’s their job to fight diabolical religions and save the “lost souls,” but Catholic and mainline Protestant missionaries find God’s grace wherever they go and often claim that they receive more than they give. 
  
In earlier times also Christian missionary work could respect cultural differences. The great missionary to the Irish, St. Patrick, was British, and therefore Roman, but he identified with the Irish people, and the church that he founded in Ireland was very Irish. Irish Christianity, in turn, became a blessing to the entire world since it was the monks of Ireland (an illiterate land before Patrick) who preserved the literature of the ancient world while European Roman civilization was falling apart. 
  
Further back in time, during the three centuries before it acquired the power of the Roman Empire, there was little Christians could promise converts by way of reward, other than the occasional persecutions. But Christianity was advancing throughout the Roman world. Why? There was, of course, the idea of eternal life after this one, but I don’t think that’s what drew people in. Other religions and philosophies promised the same thing. One new thing Christians had was not an idea. It was the memory of a series of events, one-time occurrences in one identifiable corner of the world, and a novel way of reading God’s activity in what was happening. 
  
Were there miracles there, something that would show up on a video as an obvious violation of the laws of nature? Maybe. Some scholars believe that the Biblical record, along with any other evidence, is not clear enough to know for sure. The phenomenon of wonder workers was rather common in Jesus’ day, and Jesus had that reputation; but it’s hard to know what to make of it. If you change the question to: “Did something happen that gave the natural order of things a whole new color or focus or shade of meaning, something that you might call ‘good news’ or ‘blessing’ for all the earth’s communities?” then I think the Bible’s answer is “Yes”; and it makes a bigger difference than mere scientifically impossible deeds could. In that sense, God’s history with his chosen people is a miracle.

 

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