It is couched in between two Minor Prophets, Obadiah and Micah. It is composed of only 4 chapters, with only 48 verses in total; a small book, a minor prophet but with an extremely explosive message—it is the book and the person of Jonah.
God summoned Jonah to go to a place he did not want to go, to visit a people he did not particularly like, and to give a message he literally detested—all this to the pagan city of Nineveh!
Jonah’s response to God’s call? A flat and unequivocal “No!” I will not go! To prove it, Jonah jumped into a pagan ship going in the exact opposite direction. Jonah reasoned that this would solve the problem.
God had other plans. When God wants to carry out a mission, he finds the wherewithal to accomplish it! God sent two unexpected surprises to Jonah: a powerful storm and a huge fish. Neither of these ever crossed the mind of Jonah.
The storm compelled the sailors to question who provoked it. Jonah pleads guilty. Then Jonah, cast into the depths of the sea, surmising his life would be snuffed out, finds himself swallowed up by a huge fish in whose belly he remains for three long days and three long nights!
Afterwards, the fish vomits Jonah out of his mouth and where does Jonah end up? Exactly where Jonah had decided to escape and avoid at all costs— the huge city of Nineveh. When God wants His way, He will carry it out and sometimes in the most surprising ways!
Now Jonah, the resistant prophet of the Lord, starts out on his mission of preaching to the enormous, sinful, pagan-filled city of Nineveh. Jonah’s message, clear and to the point, was one of conversion or condemnation: “In 40 days Nineveh and its entire people will be destroyed!”
The news of this “message of doom” reached the ears of the king and the result was shocking: a total call to conversion for the whole kingdom, nobody excluded, not even the animals! Man and woman, young and old, even the four-footed creatures had imposed upon them both a rigorous fast and an outward display of penance—the donning of sackcloth and ashes.
Peering down from heaven upon the humbled and repentant Ninevites, God points out to Jonah their attitude of conversion, their change of heart. Consequently, God Himself decides not to chastise the Ninevites. Jonah was irritated at God’s decision. He had been expecting another Sodom and Gomorrah to be displayed at Nineveh. He wanted revenge and justice to be dealt out and quickly. God preferred mercy. God is slow to anger and rich in mercy. Man, on the contrary, is quick to anger and slow to forgiveness. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; as high are the heavens above the earth, so are God’s thoughts above ours!
The last verse and thought in the Book of Jonah is very telling. These poor people do not know how to distinguish between their right hand and their left! In other words, ignorance is vast in this huge land. Jesus said from the cross similar words: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
How many lessons can we glean from this short but powerful book of the Prophet Jonah? In how many ways might we be able to identify with the person of Jonah? Do we suffer from the same “Jonah-complex?” Why not enter our own hearts and make a brief but sincere examination of conscience. Pray and respond interiorly to these thought-provoking questions!
1. RESISTANCE! How often in our lives have we heard God calling us clearly—as in the case of Jonah—and we purposely closed our ears to that call?
2. FLIGHT! Worse yet! How often have we heard the call insistently and clearly and not only have we resisted but, worse yet, turned our backs on God—like the Prodigal Son—and ran in the opposite direction? Maybe it happened within the last 48 hours?
3. SURPRISE DIVINE INTERVENTION. In His Divine Providence and infinite goodness, how often has God–like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”–sought us out despite our resistance and flight from Him—pursuing us and tracking us down?
4. STORMS. Spiritual, emotional, moral, social, familial, and economic storms! How often has God intervened—possibly in a very powerful and unexpected way—sending some powerful storm in your life to bring you back to the right path? God is a mortal enemy of complacency. In a clear and cutting way God reminds us of this in the Book of the Apocalypse: “You are neither hot nor cold—I wish you were—but you are lukewarm. Therefore, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” Sometimes God is forced to descend in torments, storms and tempests to shock us out of our lukewarm, anemic, indolent spiritual malaise! Augustine reacted violently to lukewarmness—after God sent storms in his life—with these words: “Lord, cut me in this life, burn me in this life, but save me for the life to come!”
5. SURPRISE CONVERSIONS! True, conversion is the work of God in His way, His time and His manner. However, God often utilizes secondary means to bring about the conversion of individuals, families and even nations! Jonah’s shock was the conversion of these Ninevites; he was expecting quick chastisement and total annihilation! However, God had other plans…surprise plans. God wanted Jonah simply to obey, to say “yes” to Him as His instrument and then God would do the rest! Could it be right now that God is calling you and calling me to be a modern Jonah? Could it be that our timidity, our fear, our lack of total trust in God is blocking God’s work in the conversion of one, many, maybe even a multitude? What would have happened if Saul had never converted to St. Paul, if Simon was never converted to St. Peter, if Augustine was never converted to Saint Augustine? Today if you hear His voice harden not your hearts! “Speak, O Lord for your servant is listening!”