Role Playing?

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh… (Jonah 3:1-3a) We are making our way through the story of Jonah and thinking about what it means to be human before God. After a rather circuitous route, Jonah finally makes his way to Nineveh to do the work God intended for him from the beginning. It has been an eventful journey -- a boat, a storm, a big fish -- but Jonah finally gets himself in sync with the program. He delivers the message. And the results are spectacular, although Jonah will have mixed feelings about it, as the conclusion of the story reveals. It becomes apparent that after he does what he ought to have done, his heart was never in his work. He was just role playing.

I used the term “work” because it is the right way to think about what Jonah does. Work at its best is how we positively effect change in the world, change that comes about because we are present and accounted for, using whatever human faculties we have to build, direct, plan, make, grow, discover, re-imagine, bless. Human work matters; human work makes the world. Perhaps the two redeeming qualities we see in Jonah are that he prays when he is in trouble and he shows up (eventually) for work. We can credit him that much.

But there is a discernible ambivalence in Jonah’s work. Sure, what he does is right, and what he says is accurate, but as we will see, Jonah is not completely engaged. To a large extent, Jonah remains aloof, removed, distant. While he does the job he is supposed to do, in reality he is alienated from it.

You are no doubt aware of the dramatic masks, those symbols of the ancient Greek theater. The players would literally hide their faces behind their masks (Gk: personnae) for the sake of their role in the play. The deeper philosophical question has sometimes been voiced as to whether or not there is such a thing as a person at all -- a real you -- or whether we are simply the roles we are given to play.

The Biblical answer to this particular piece of musing would be yes, there is a person, a face, a real center from which we live and love and work. The essential Biblical command then is that we love God not only with doing (our strength), but our feeling and thinking (heart and mind) as well (see Matthew 22:34-40). The call is toward a deeper integration of our outer and inner lives. If we fail to this kind of personal unity we inevitably become little Jonahs, doing good things, but complaining and pouting about it.

The gracious and surprising thing is that God uses such half-heartedness anyway. Nineveh is radically helped by what Jonah says and does. But what about Jonah? Well, there is certainly more work to be done, a work that involves his own soul.

Apparently, God is not only concerned that we do good in the world, a good that we can call our work. No, God is after a deeper target, a more radical goal. God is after the good we are for the world, a good that springs up from our hearts.

This Sunday we continue our series, Jonah: On Being Human. Hope to see you there.

Bob Osborne