But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the Lord said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then the Lord said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour 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?"
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them." So Peter went down to the men and said, "I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?" They answered, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say." So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter's arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, "Stand up; I am only a mortal." And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?" Cornelius replied, "Four days ago at this very hour, at three o'clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.' Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say."
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."
For much of the time we pretend that we are predominantly rational creatures and that reasoned argument is the best way to change our minds. The American Declaration of Independence proclaims that certain truths are "self-evident" (to reason) and most of us, generally, agree. But we also know that we are not solely creatures of reason. We are prey to irrational fears, subject to ancient taboos, held bound by forces we scarcely understand. To bring about a change of heart sometimes requires more than an appeal to reason.
God chooses some astonishing ways to change our minds and hearts. These seem rarely to involve an academic paper and some neatly argued logic. The story of Jonah provides a good example of God's powerful gifts of persuasion. In offering an explanation of why God had forgiven the Ninevites, God does not present Jonah with a long and carefully worded case. Instead, with a gentle and persuasive trick, God uses a castor oil plant and the midday sun. If Jonah can protest at the shrivelling of a pot plant, God says," 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?"
It's hard to know whether Jonah was ever completely convinced. But the narrator of the whole story of Jonah evidently hopes that the reader will be convinced that God cares about all the people in creation, even those the reader has been taught to reckon foreign, immoral and undeserving. The story is part of the prophetic witness of our faith tradition that "God shows no partiality", or perhaps, more truthfully still, that God loves all of us like favourites.
In convincing the apostle Peter of the same truth, God also does something more than present the argument. In any case, as we think about what "the argument" might be, we can at least conclude that the modern human-rights agenda or the post-Enlightenment understanding of the equality of all human beings would have been lost on a first-century apostle. It's striking, of course, that this argument is lost even on many who live today, centuries "post-" all of that. The forces that keep notions of racial separation or ethnic superiority going are always rooted in places other than reason. And so it was into those places that God made a move, and changed Peter's understanding.
You can feel sorry for Peter. He had been praying hard up there on the roof, and in the heat of the day. He became hungry, in fact so hungry that he fell into a trance while the meal was still cooking. And like a starved man he dreamt of food. But this was a nightmare. He was being invited to eat anything, including food that he had learned to find disgusting and abhorrent. It wasn't just that it was off the menu or against the rules; it was the kind of offer that made even a hungry man feel nauseous. But the voice inviting him to eat said clearly, three times, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Peter is frankly puzzled about what the nightmare could mean, until he is taken to meet a Gentile. And then Peter recognizes a link between his dream-induced nausea and the disgust and distaste he has, up to that point, felt for the Gentiles. If God could so radically challenge all that Peter had learned at a gut level about food, how much more could God challenge what Peter had learned at this deep, irrational level about human beings.
Peter says, "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."
It is a mark of human maturity to recognize that many of our deepest feelings about other people are rooted somewhere that may not be open to the straightforward claims of reason. We know, at the level of our minds, that it is unreasonable to believe that God prefers some people to others or that some ethnic groups are superior to others. But sometimes, in a place within ourselves which we can hardly name, feelings of fear or even of disgust emerge. It is into this place that we need God to come and show us the truth, as God revealed it to Peter in his famished dream of a tablecloth laden with taboo food.
In Amitav Ghosh's post-colonial novel, The Glass Palace, the author describes how the British colonialists tried to force the members of the Indian army, under their rule, to break their various food taboos, so that they would forget their differences from one another and forge a new loyalty to the British empire.
Every meal at an officers' mess... was an adventure, a glorious infringement of taboos. They ate foods that none of them had ever touched at home: bacon, ham and sausages at breakfast; roast beef and pork chops for dinner... All of them had stories to tell about how their stomachs had turned the first time they had chewed upon a piece of beef or pork; they had struggled to keep the morsels down, fighting their revulsion. 1
This story illustrates a connection between food taboos and the tragedy of racial separation as well as conveying something of the real cost of broken taboo. It is also a scandalous story to us who read of it now because of the political context from which it comes. The British attempted to overcome one kind of separation, but only for their own imperial ends and in order to reinforce yet another kind of colonial oppression. But, from whatever place we read this scandalous text, it may stir and invoke within us a renewed sense of the "scandal" of the breaking of food laws and taboos. And to do that is to renew our sense of what it was that Peter faced in his dream.
It is a taken-for-granted foundation of the church in our times that racism is a sin and that God has no favourites. In Christ we are brothers and sisters, no matter where we come from, of whatever nation or tribe. This has, tragically, not always been so. But it may be that we are still reluctant to face the fear of the other that is rooted in a deep place, and a place which cannot always be reached by the powers of argument or reason. Occasionally we catch ourselves out, and the fear of the other or the unknown re-emerges. Perhaps we are at ease in the street if followed by someone who looks like us, but uneasy if we turn to see a face that is foreign to us. Perhaps there are some peoples we cannot dissociate from a history or politics that is fearful to us. Like the smell of foreign food, we are sometimes intrigued and sometimes wary. If this is indeed true about us, then it is better to say it than to pretend. And, more than that, it is good to read in the Bible about the saints and prophets who have struggled to overcome a deeply rooted fear or taboo, and whom God has changed.
Peter's dream changed his mind and changed his heart, so that he was convinced at last that "God shows no partiality". As he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles. And what could Peter do, but recommend that they be baptized? The truth was also pressed upon Jonah that God loves all the people God has made. Both of these texts speak of defining moments in the awakening of particular communities to the end of racial exclusivism - and, in their particular cases, to a new understanding of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. For, in the sight of God, it turns out, no one is profane or unclean.
God of all nations and peoples,
for whom no one on earth is unclean, untouchable or taboo,
cleanse our hearts from the fears and prejudices
which still threaten our being
and challenge us in the deepest places
of body and spirit.
Come to us, and do whatever it takes,
to open our eyes,
to bring a change of heart,
and to turn us to do what is right,
so that, in your good time,
we shall recognize one another
as beloved brothers and sisters,
and as children of your love.
In the name of the one who
to touch, to heal and to hold,
Jesus Christ your Son, our Saviour,
Susan Durber is a minister of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom and serves two congregations in Oxford, England. She has a doctorate in biblical studies and literary theory and has published sermons, prayers and articles.
When was the last time you changed your mind? It might, for example, have been about how you valued another person, the desirability of an action or the correctness of a belief. What caused you to change in this way? Spend time thinking about this. It took some dramatic events to change Jonah's and Peter's preconceptions. What parts of these two accounts do you most identify with?
Jonah and Peter had some deep-seated problems with certain people, which they expressed in relation to their own faith in God. They were certain of the rightness of their positions. Which people do you have problems with? What is it about them that causes the problem - for instance, their ethnicity, their behaviour, their politics or their beliefs? What is it about you that causes the problem - for instance, your personal or communal history, your beliefs, a gut reaction? Be as honest as possible in looking at yourself. If you are discussing this in a group, identify any common factors in your attitudes.
Susan Durber comments that the narrator of Jonah "hopes that the reader will be convinced that God cares about all the people in creation, even those the reader has been taught to reckon foreign, immoral and undeserving". However, even when we "know" this, we still find it difficult to accept one another. How can God help us change our attitudes and behaviour towards others?
1 London, Harper Collins, 2000, p. 278.