January 25, 2015
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
It is easy to be judgmental, but hard to be understanding. It is easier to hold a grudge than to let it go. But since we worship a God of mercy, his plan for the world can sometimes differ from ours. In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Jonah finds himself experiencing this conflict in his gut—feeling deeply vindictive, but called by God to be a messenger of mercy.
Running Away from God
At the beginning of the Book of Jonah, God tells the prophet to go and preach a message of judgment to Ninevah, the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kgs 14:25) a few generations before the time when Assyria would conquer and assimilate Israel, so Assyria is a looming enemy. Rather than responding to God in obedience, Jonah takes off for a far country on a sailing vessel. Famously, he is swallowed by a big fish, prays for deliverance, and is regurgitated onto the beach. Why does Jonah run away from God’s call? It would seem that proclaiming divine judgment on his enemies would be enjoyable for a vindictive man, but Jonah knows what the Lord is like: “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2 RSV). By preaching a message of judgment, Jonah just might become an agent of mercy.
(Whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish or not has prompted endless debates about the event’s probability, scientific possibility, miraculous nature, etc. from St. Augustine defending its historical accuracy [Letter 102, sec. 31] to modern apologists retelling a dubious legend of a sailor being swallowed by a sperm whale in 1891. If Jonah were actually swallowed by a whale and survived, it would be a miracle not a natural occurrence.)
After his travails at sea, Jonah hears the Lord call him “the second time” (Jonah 3:1). Not surprisingly, he decides to obey this time rather than risk any more escape routes fraught with divine dangers. So he goes to Ninevah and preaches a message of divine judgment: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 RSV) One can imagine the judgmental relish in the prophet’s voice, while hearing a twinge of doubt knowing how merciful his God is. The text calls Ninevah an ir-gedolah lelohim, “a great city to God,” perhaps to be translated as “a divinely large city” or “a city so big that even God thinks it’s big.” We are told it was “a three days’ journey,” which could indicate the city’s size (also indicated by the population note of “120,000 persons” [4:11]) or the distance from Jonah’s origin to destination.
When Jonah preaches his ominous message, everyone in the city responds. The king even issues a decree that all citizens are to fast and wear sackcloth, even down to the cows and sheep. Now this is the right way to respond to God. Even though we have no reason to think the Ninevites knew the God of Israel and we have no other historical record of their great conversion moment, the point is that they exemplify true repentance in their response to God’s messenger. Rather than taking the message of destruction as a final opportunity to sin, they see it as a chance for redemption and throw themselves headlong into repenting. God does not like half-way, insincere penitence—see “I will spew you out of my mouth” in Rev 3:16—but whole-hearted, genuine, and complete change. There is nothing half-baked about the Ninevites’ response.
Pity and Pouting
Now “God saw what they did” (3:10) and he mercifully relents from the disastrous judgment he was going to bring upon Ninevah. The beauty of this is that God notices not only when we sin, but also when we repent. He cares and he has pity. What we do matters. When we are tempted to feel that life lacks meaning, we would do well to remember how “God saw” the Ninevites and their change of heart. Of course, from Jonah’s perspective, God’s merciful response is the worst thing that could have happened. He was hoping to watch the city get pummeled by fire and brimstone (like the disciples in Luke 9:54), but instead, his preaching brings salvation to his enemy. Rather than welcoming the people back to God, Jonah goes to pout. He blames God with a “see, I told you so” moment (see 4:1-2). God insists on his prerogative over his creation and rejects Jonah’s silly anger, like the vineyard master who pays all the laborers the same wage despite how long they worked (Matt 20:1-16). The Lord trumps Jonah’s pouting with divine pity for those who repent.
Running Back to God
At different times in our own lives we might find ourselves in the Ninevites’ shoes or in Jonah’s. We may stand in need of sincere repentance from sin and so can humbly, yet confidently expect God’s forgiveness, particularly in the Sacrament of Confession. Of course, we might find ourselves puffed up and incensed like Jonah, wishing that God were more “fair”—as we like to say. But that also might be a great opportunity to revisit the confessional and acknowledge our own need for forgiveness. Rather than running away, perhaps we can find the grace to run back to God. Rather than pouting on a hillside like the reluctant prophet, we might come to share in God’s generously merciful heart.