I thought I knew the story of Jonah.
I mean, I know Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, not a whale and that’s like honors-level Sunday School stuff, right?
Ok, maybe not.
But I was feeling pretty confident this past Sunday when my pastor started preaching about Jonah.
And then he hit me right away with a Jonah fact, I’ll be honest, I had no clue about. Turns out when Jonah was fleeing to Tarshish, he was heading to modern day Spain. Who knew?
Don’t tell me.
You did, didn’t you? It’s ok. You can say it. I’m dumb and everything I think is neat, you’ve known about since elementary school.
But did you also know that according to the book of Jonah (chapter 3, verse 10 to be exact) God sometimes changes his mind based on what we do?
I give up trying to impress you with my new-to-me Bible facts.
Let’s talk about worms instead.
The big fish gets all the press in Jonah’s story, but a cameo appearance from a small worm is what caught my attention this past Sunday.
If you recall, after Jonah finished his vacation in the belly of the big fish, he headed off to Nineveh to save the heathens. SPOILER ALERT: they were saved. The people Nineveh turned from their wicked ways and decided to worship the God of Israel (thus prompting the aforementioned change of God’s mind regarding God’s plan to destroy them). Most preachers would be ecstatic if they converted an entire town. But Jonah? Not so much.
Jonah was ticked off about God being so gracious to his enemies. In his anger, Jonah went outside the city, built himself some sort of booth, sat down in it, and pouted.
Being ever gracious, God sent a plant to grow over the booth to shade Jonah from the hot sun.
Being also a teacher, God sent a worm the next day to eat the plant, exposing Jonah to the hot sun. The day after that God sent a harsh wind to make Jonah even more uncomfortable.
Learn to care about others. Or as they Jesus fella put it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What’s so interesting to me is the Hebrew used in this story.
As my pastor pointed out, the Hebrew word describing what God did with the worm means a person in authority “appointed” or “set aside” something for a particular purpose. It’s a common verb found in the book of Jonah as God does a lot of appointing and setting aside of things for particular purposes.
He appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah, a plant to cover Jonah, a worm to eat the plant, and a wind to ratchet up Jonah’s misery.
In the Church, we have a word for this sort of appointing or setting aside for divine purposes.
When someone is appointed or set aside for a particular, divine purpose in the Church we call it being ordained.
But, as you know well, not everyone in every Christian tradition can be ordained.
In some churches, many churches in fact, women are told God doesn’t want them to be ordained.
Which is an odd thing to believe when you really think about it.
You see, worms are bird food.
And birds aren’t particularly important creatures either. Sure, many of them are pretty to look at and some even sing lovely songs, but for most of us, they’re just background players in the story of our lives. We give little, if any thought to them on any given day/ After all they don’t sow or reap or build big cities or invent awesome new apps.
And yet, as small and inconsequential as the birds of the air may be in our lives, our Heavenly Father feeds them.
Are women not more important than birds?
Are women not more important than the worms God feeds to birds?
Are they not capable of and trustworthy enough to be set aside for a particular divine purpose?
Or are women worth less to God than worms?
Now, I know what you’re gonna say, well at least one of the several things you’re probably gonna say.
“The worms were just eating a plant. They weren’t teaching the faith.”
You sure about that?
You see, the worms were being used – set apart for a particular purpose – by God to teach Jonah a lesson. That lesson was essential for Jonah to learn because, being a prophet, he had a lifetime left to go in which he would be preaching the message of God to the people of God (and anyone else who would listen).
In that story, how exactly is the role of the worm all that different from the role of a seminary professor teaching an important lesson to future preachers? Or a preacher teaching important lessons of faith to a congregation which is as Christ’s body called to share the faith with the world? Both are set apart by God and appointed for a particular purpose – just like the lowly worm.
“But what about Paul saying he doesn’t permit women to teach and wants them to remain silent in the church?”
You’re right. He did say that. He said what he wanted to happen (“I do not permit”) in a particular church (those were real letters he was writing) in a particular context (a patriarchal society in which women were largely uneducated) for a particular reason (certain women in Corinth and Ephesus were being disruptive). He didn’t say what God had declared for all places and for all times. And he couldn’t. Because Paul knew the story of God’s people well and it’s a story of people like Sarah and Rahab and Deborah and Ruth and Mary and Elizabeth and on and on and on, each of which played essential roles – often leadership and teaching roles – in the story of God’s people.
Or should be not bother with exegesis and pretend like women stayed silently in the background throughout the Bible before Paul wrote his letters to the Church?
“But the twelve apostles were all men!”
They were also all Jewish and of Middle Eastern descent, but I have yet to hear anyone make those things requirements for leadership in the Church.
But while we’re talking about Paul and Jesus, let’s look at what else they had to say.
When talking about the Church in general, Paul had something very different to say about men and women and the way we like to separate and divide ourselves. In Christ, we are part of a new creation and in that new creation “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul wasn’t waxing poetically about a distant future. He was talking about the here and now. And, no, Paul didn’t conceive of a sanctified separate, but equal situation in the Church wherein women could do some things, they just couldn’t be leaders. Need proof? Look no further than the last chapter of Romans wherein Paul goes out of his way to thank women for their leadership role in the ministry of the early Church.
Jesus also had a thing or two to say – and do – about the role of women in the kingdom of God.
The twelve apostles get all the headlines (headlines that not coincidently had been mostly written by men), but women were just as essential to his ministry. Not only did they support him financially by feeding him and giving him shelter, they followed him everywhere he went – including the cross when almost all of his other followers had fallen away.
And when the twelve male apostles were still hiding in fear after the crucifixion, it was women Jesus set apart women for the particular and prestigious purpose of being the first ones to preach the good news of the resurrection to the world – and they preached it to men, no less.
Which means Jesus didn’t just include women in his inner circle, he ordained them to preach the gospel.
Even Paul, the man so-called complementarians rely on so heavily to keep women silent and out of leadership roles in the church, went out of his way to recognize the vital leadership role women played in the early church.
And as the book of Jonah teaches us, God likes ordain unexpected people and unexpected things to proclaim good news. And it’s not just Jonah either. From a murderer in Exodus to a talking donkey in Numbers to a prostitute in Joshua and pile of dead fish and broken bread in Matthew, the Bible makes it clear over and over again that there simply is no one and no thing – even if they’re a cowardly would-be prophet or a tiny worm – that God can’t or won’t set apart to preach and teach the good news to the world.
So if worms, which are here today and tomorrow are eaten by birds, can be ordained by God to teach men the importance of loving one another, if Paul set apart a host of women and praised them for their leadership in the early church, and if Jesus ordained women to be the first ones to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, it seems to me we have two options in the church today.
Either we ordain women to preach the good news and lead the Church just as God did when he put on flesh and dwelt among us.
Or admit we think they are worth less to God than slimy, filth covered worms.