The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jonah and the Gospel

As a little break from my description of our recent Caribbean cruise, I thoght I'd share my homily from daily Mass this past Wednesday. The Scripture readings were Jonah 3:1-10 and Luke 11: 29-32


People who believe God has no sense of humor have obviously never read the Book of Jonah. It’s really a very funny book. Because of this, and because it’s only three pages long – Jonah is also one of my favorite books of the Bible.

There’s so much to like about this book. Just consider the characters we encounter. They’re not only interesting, but they’re all actually likeable. Even Jonah, with all his hang-ups and bigotries and fears, is likeable – probably because in him we see so much of ourselves.

But the rest of the characters…the pagan sailors who toss Jonah overboard, the Ninevite king, the people of the city, they’re all wonderful characters. Even the animals are remarkable in that they join the population of Nineveh in doing penance. They fast, they put on sackcloth, and they repent. This is one remarkable city!

Of course, all of this really bothers Jonah. You see, the Ninevites aren’t Jews. They’re pagans. As far as Jonah’s concerned, they and their wicked city deserve to be destroyed. And it’s Jonah and his antics that make the book so amusing. He actually tries to hide from God, and then when God is merciful to the Ninevites, Jonah can’t resist. He argues with God; he pouts; he gets very upset that he played a part in the city’s salvation. Anyway, if you’ve never read Jonah, or haven’t read it in a while, read it tonight. You’ll enjoy it.
Jonah waiting and hoping for the destruction of Nineveh

In some respects Jonah is a prelude to the Gospels. It’s a prophetic book of good news, a message of repentance and mercy and forgiveness. And like the Gospels, Jonah is a book about hope.

Now, it’s important to understand that Jonah is not an historical book; rather it’s a sort of parable. Historically, we know the people of Nineveh, the capital of the militaristic and totalitarian Assyrian Empire, never really converted and turned to the one God in repentance. And we know that the Jews of that time never tried to evangelize the Assyrians. Both nations were far too busy hating each other to engage in such holy activities.

You see, Jonah is not a book describing what really happened; it’s a book describing what could have happened. It’s a book of the possible. It’s a book that shows God’s people what they could have accomplished in the world had they only trusted in God and brought Him to others. In Jonah, God is telling His people: “Look, everyone is repenting of their sins. Even the Ninevites, the hated Assyrians, are repenting. And because of their repentance, I have shown them my mercy. I will surely do the same for you, my chosen people, if you too will only repent and turn away from sin.”

God is telling us two things: never despair with the world; and carry His message of hope to everyone. If Jonah’s preaching can bring about mass conversions and repentance, imagine what Jesus can do! Not just isolated individuals, but families, towns, cities, entire countries can come to believe. They can declare a fast, pray for forgiveness, and become a model for the rest of us. This is the same Lenten message to which each of us is called to respond. And it’s a message straight out of today’s Gospel reading.

How did Jesus phrase it? “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jonah’s sign for the Ninevites were the prophetic words he spoke. To prophesy means simply to speak what God is speaking when He is speaking it. Jonah's timely and prophetic words carried the awesome convicting power of Almighty God, a power that brought about repentance in a people enslaved by sin. It’s this immediate and total repentance of the Ninevites that demonstrates and proves the remarkable power of prophecy.

It’s the same way in the Gospels. The stories of repentance that we encounter in the Gospels are all about accepting Jesus’ invitation to turn back to God, and to do so joyfully. That’s what we should focus on during this Lent. That’s what we should desire. That’s what we should be praying for this Lent. Just as the Ninevites needed Jonah, we all need signs of repentance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. For as we all eventually learn, you and I can’t do this on our own.

So let’s pray today for signs, and for the wisdom to recognize them, and for the will to follow them. And let’s pray too for perseverance for ourselves and for each other that we may turn to God and discover the mystery of joy and freedom in that turning.

1 comment:

  1. I often wonder about what, exactly, Jesus means by "the sign of Jonah," especially with the technicality that Jesus was not really "in the belly of the whale" for three days and three nights.

    I often wonder if He means not the sign of Jonah to the Ninevites, but the sign of the Ninevites to Jonah.

    Afterall, the Pharisees-who have the attitude of Jonah--are demanding a sign. Jesus says they will be given no sign but the sign of Jonah: that God will show His true power to the Israelites by the mass conversion of Gentiles.