In his book on development work, Myers pauses to reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus and how the geographical movement of Jesus sheds light on the work of God. Myers claims that, “The Christ of God was very much the Christ of the powerless and despised geographical and social margins of Israel.”[1] Myers fleshes this idea out by noting that Jesus discovered his vocation in the wilderness, and confined the large majority of his ministry to Galilee, the very edge of Israel, choosing to surround himself by and primarily minister to the common people, often viewed as unclean and sinners. Not only does this mean that Jesus chose to focus on the periphery of social, religious, and political power, but that he made those on the periphery a part of the center of God’s power.

Myers notes that Jesus, as the Son of God, is the true center of God’s power and kingdom work, and therefore wherever Jesus is, becomes the new center of power.[2] Therefore, Jesus purposefully moves the center of God’s power away from Jerusalem, and into the wilderness, into the periphery, among those who live on the edges. Furthermore, as Boyd notes, John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the new Temple of God, a true temple that is available to everyone, regardless of the state of their ritual purity. Jesus forgives sins which was something only the Temple Cult could accomplish, and refused to tie God’s blessings to “other symbols of Jewish particularism.”[3] By this, Boyd is referring to the notable lack of references in Jesus’ sermons to God’s blessing for the Promised land. It would seem, at least for Jesus, that God’s power and kingdom work cannot be tied to a geographical center, namely Jerusalem, but in fact is present in and through the work of Jesus, who moves about on the periphery of perceived power, creating Kingdom centered living on the edges.

Pierce takes this idea one step further, by claiming that the work and ministry of Jesus was precisely the dismantling of the boundaries erected by the perceived centers of power. Using the story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof (Luke 5:17:26) as an example, Pierce claims that the healing of the paralytic is a good thing, but more is happening in the story. In fact the thing that delights Jesus in this story is that, “They’re ripping the roof off of the place and those outside are being let in.”[4] For Pierce, the whole ministry of Jesus involves breaking down the boundaries between those inside the house and outside the house, saying, “[Jesus] smiles not only because the roof of Israel is being ripped off so that now more people can come in, but also because the local people are taking the matter into their own hands. They have understood what it means to tap into the dynamic power of God’s liberating love, and in this way, free themselves from oppressive religious laws that suck life from the poor and oppressed.”[5]

For Myers, Boyd, and Pierce, the ministry of Jesus was strategic, in that Jesus chose to work on the periphery to prove that God’s power and work was not geographically tied to Israel’s Temple or to the ethnic particularity of the people of God. Yet, while Jesus exemplified this understanding of God’s work and God’s desire for all people to come into the house, it is not the first time we see God reaching out past the perceived centers of power to include those found on the margins. The story of Jonah challenges Israel’s understanding of God’s power as it relates to geographical proximity to the Temple and whether God can move outside of that center of power.

Jonah, as the prophet of God, should represent the center of God’s work. Wherever he travels, wherever he sets up his “prophetic shop,” the center of God’s work should be found there. For God’s people, they took this center of power seriously, and pushed it to its fullest extent, believing that Jerusalem was the center of God’s power. Moreover, according to Israel, not only was Jerusalem the center of God’s power, but God could only be found there. For those on the periphery, their geographical distance equated with spiritual distance. The spheres of power ripple out from Jerusalem, from the Temple as epicenter to Judah, to Israel, and finally to the nations, who find themselves, not even in the periphery, but completely outside the religious power structure of Israel.

The Temple was seen as the center of power, the physical location of God’s presence. Likewise, as the prophet of God, Jonah was seen as the mouthpiece of the divine, and as such, he represented a walking, talking, breathing center of God’s power and work. In other words, whereas the Temple was the fixed epicenter of God’s power that one could approach or retreat from, Jonah as the prophet of God, was also the center of God’s power and work. Wherever Jonah went, the center of God’s power was there, through him.

Nineveh, as a major city outside Israel, was as far away from the center of God’s power as it was possible to be. It was so far away from the center that it could not even be said to be on the periphery. Nineveh was a capital of “the heathens,” a city full of the enemy, the “other.” This massive city represented everything wrong with the world, an evil place full of the worst kinds of sinners. For Israel, Nineveh was as far away from God, geographically and spiritually, as it was possible to get. It could be said that the ripples of God’s power give out long before they reach Nineveh. In every way, God’s power and work do not reach this city.

As Myers notes, God is often found outside the centers of power. Jesus represented this perfectly, choosing to minister, not in Jerusalem and the center, but in the backwaters of Galilee. Myers notes that Jesus, by working in the periphery, shifts the center of power outside Jerusalem and relocates it in Galilee. Jesus creates the center of God’s work wherever he goes, and because he valued the periphery he shifted the centers of power there.

Jonah operated in the same way. The prophet moved through the spheres of power, and like the priests and kings, represented the center of God’s work. The issue, however, was that Jonah himself was wrapped up in this idea of nationalism so common in pre-exilic Israel. He, like most of Israel, believed that God’s interest was tied to the spheres of power. That is to say, God’s interest in the lives of the people was in direct proportion to their geographical distance from the Temple. Therefore, God loves Jerusalem most, and Judah next. From there, God becomes less interested the closer one finds themselves to Israel’s borders. And finally, everything past the borders of Israel falls firmly outside God’s care and interest.

Into this mindset, the author of Jonah tells us that the word of the Lord came to Jonah the prophet. God speaks to the “center of power,” which makes sense according to Jonah’s worldview. What is odd, however is that God says that he wants Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh. God desires that the prophet leave the center of power and travel outward, past the periphery, and into the wild unknown, past what Jonah believes is God’s power and desire. This is odd right away, because God should not care about Nineveh, yet here he is, wanting Jonah, a veritable center of power, to move the center of God’s work outside Jerusalem, placing it instead in hostile, evil, sinful Nineveh.

Just like Jesus would later show, God’s desire is for the periphery and the people found there. So he sends his prophet, the representative of his power and work, to create a new center of power and work. Jonah has other plans, however. He feels very protective of God’s work, and has fully invested in the nationalistic idea that God should only be found in the Temple, the epicenter of power and prestige. Likewise, as a center of power himself, Jonah feels defensive about relocating God’s power outside the people of God, and is shocked that God would want to be found outside Jerusalem. Understandably, with this as his default mindset, Jonah refuses God’s request, and moves away from the Temple. Maybe, by leaving the center of power, God’s voice will fade with geographical distance. As Pierce notes, “…They who serve God so faithfully resent the idea that God does not confine his love to them, but extends it in equal measure to outcasts and sinners.”[6]

But Jonah himself is a walking contradiction, and his inner struggles frequently come to light. He tries to flee God’s presence, moving away from God’s perceived power-center, all the while knowing that he cannot escape God. He even says as much when the sailors ask him about his guilt in the divine storm. Likewise, he also knows, deep inside, that his nationalistic view of God is incorrect. He confesses, in chapter four, that he understands the true heart of God, that God is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love.” In other words, if Jonah was honest with himself, for even a moment, he would know that tying God’s interest to these spheres of power goes against the most foundational understanding of Yahweh and his work. Jonah knows this but he values his position of privilege, both as a member of the chosen people, and specifically as the prophet of God. Unlike Jesus, Jonah wields his place as the center of God’s work as a weapon. He feels he has power and authority to bring, or withhold, the center of God’s power and work. Because of this, when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, he decides to ignore God’s request. And to add insult to injury, Jonah moves in the opposite direction of Nineveh, in his mind, moving God’s center of power further from Nineveh than when the request came.

It would seem from the narrative, that God is determined to work through Jonah, despite his vast limitations. God shows up in the divine storm to course-correct Jonah, proving two things in his presence on the sea. The first thing God proves is that God is not, in fact, tied to Jerusalem. The Temple is not the fixed center of power that Israel thought it was. God was able, in fact, to move outside of Israel, and could even be found on the sea, the accepted realm of chaos, where leviathan ruled supreme. Secondly, God proved that Jonah could still function as the agent of God, even in his limitations. God was still choosing to use Jonah as his mouthpiece, affirming that the prophet was representing the center of God’s power and work.

However, with this affirmation comes the repeated request. In chapter three the word of the Lord comes to Jonah again, requesting that Jonah go to Nineveh, “that great city.” God desires that those on the periphery be brought into the work of God. Jonah, having learned his lesson, goes up to Nineveh, in his mind, bringing the center of power outside the boundaries of Israel.

Jonah, by entering Nineveh, effectively moves the city from outside God’s power structure to inside the circle of his work. In fact, Jonah’s presence in Nineveh effectively turns the city of sin into the epicenter of God’s work. And when this happens, the change is obvious and immediate. When Nineveh is given the chance to bask in the center of God’s power and work, the city is transformed, from the cows to the king, in a matter of days.

Jonah witnesses this transformation firsthand, and immediately regrets his decision. He sees that Nineveh has gone from outside the periphery to the center of God’s power. And so, wielding his vocation as a weapon, Jonah chooses to retreat from the city, mistakenly thinking that by removing his presence he could remove God’s power and work. Jonah feels secure in the fact that he is a walking center of power.

However, something strange happens at this point in the narrative: God’s prophet leaves the city, hoping to take the center of power with him, effectively putting Nineveh back on the margins. Instead, the center of God’s work stays in Nineveh, and Jonah, making his camp outside the city, finds himself on the periphery of God’s work. God has not travelled with Jonah as his center. Instead, as Jesus will show us, God is interested in those found in the periphery. And where God is working become the center. For Jonah, he has found himself outside the work of God, looking on the great city from a geographical and spiritual distance.

It is worth noting that God is always concerned with those found on the periphery, and so God comes to Jonah, sitting in the sun on his hill. God moves his work back into the periphery, from Nineveh to the nearby hill, to reconcile Jonah to God’s self and to the city. But by this time Jonah is too angry to be reasoned with. So the story ends with a question, and because of Jonah, a less-than-fully realized reconciliation.

Jesus would show, hundreds of years later, that centers of power can easily and quickly become corrupted. For Jesus, this is especially true when political and religious spheres intersect each other. When the political center becomes the religious center, those power structures begin equating God’s interest with geographical closeness. This is why the teachings of Jesus and the story of Jonah as so explosive. Jesus, representing the power and work of God physically manifested, shifted the power centers by focusing on the periphery. Jesus, being the center, carried it wherever he went, redefining where God was working and who God was working with.

Unlike Jesus, Jonah uses his standing as God’s prophet, to attempt to manipulate and coerce God into staying where the religious structures claim God’s power should be. But the God of Jonah cannot be limited to the political and religious centers of power, but constantly seeks to go to the periphery, to the margins, to find and receive the people found there.

[1] Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 33.

[2] Ibid, 34.

[3] Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Vol. 2: The Cruciform Thesis (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 735.

[4] Brian J. Pierce, OP, Jesus and the Prodigal Son: The God of Radical Mercy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 31.

[5] Ibid, 32.

[6] Pierce, 45.

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