Jonah is a pretty relatable guy. Not only is he the most reluctant of the prophets (doing God's will doesn't always come easy to us), but his actions wind up demonstrating how God works in our ultimate best interest. Father Steve examines the lessons of Jonah today, in the Word on Fire blog.
I have come to understand the story of the prophet Jonah as a combination of comedy, action adventure, and densely textured theological narrative—all this is meant to communicate the mystery of vocation, mission, the identity of the God of Israel, as well as his relationship with both Israel and her enemies. All this is wrapped up tightly in one of the best-told tales in all of the Bible.
The Book of the Prophet Jonah makes it clear from the beginning that Jonah doesn’t want to be a prophet; he is summoned by the Lord to fulfill a prophet’s mission but he goes the complete opposite direction of where the Lord wants him to go! Once he reaches his destination, the scriptures tell us that he barely opens his mouth to speak God’s word of truth, and much to his surprise (and even to his consternation), he becomes the most successful prophet in the history of Israel.
I experience Jonah’s laconic proclamation as one of the most creatively comedic moments in Biblical literature: “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be destroyed.” Read the elegantly crafted prophetic texts of Isaiah or Jeremiah and compare then with Jonah’s proclamation that, in its brevity, seems like a throw-away line. Yet it is Jonah’s seemingly whispered warning that is what convinces the Ninevites to repent.
The story of Jonah is meant to delight and to teach. What is the lesson?
One way to look at the lesson of the Book of Jonah is that most of us are, like Jonah, reluctant prophets. We have received the Word of the Lord. We have been given a mission through our Baptism to speak God’s Truth. But does our witness resonate with scarcely a sound above a whisper?
Granted, the Lord has a way of doing magnificent things with whatever we are willing to give him (no matter how small). The Book of the Prophet Jonah demonstrates the principle that we can, like Jonah, scarcely open our mouths to give testimony to the truth and God can give that witness the power to bring down empires. God can work with our weakness—but I don’t think that the lesson here is a ratification of our reluctance or reticence.
The real lesson is for us to see what God accomplished through the little that Jonah gave him and then imagine what God can accomplish if we don’t run and hide. What do you think the Lord would accomplish through us if we weren’t so apt to leave our testimony on the lowest volume, or view our own vocation and mission as being at the foreground of what we are about rather than some distant background?
Imagine what God would do with us if we would set about becoming more than just reluctant prophets.
Christ references the prophet Jonah in the Gospel, speaking of the mysterious “sign of Jonah.” This sign is often presented as being a reference to Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a great fish for three days—an image that foreshadows Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
But more than this, the “sign of Jonah” is revealed in the mercy of God extended to the city of Ninevah. God accepted the repentance of the enemies of Israel and extended to those who didn’t deserve his forgiveness the surprising grace of another chance. There is a lesson for us in that grace.
In the midst of the shadows of our own time, and immersed as we are in this modern day Ninevah, we might think as Jonah did that the culture deserves nothing but wrath and the our best option is the option Jonah took at the inception of his call—to run away. One could understand such an approach, and one can also perhaps sympathize with the position that if the culture falls, it is getting precisely what it deserves.
But the “sign of Jonah” and the sign of the Cross reveals something other than our own expectations. What God wants to give us (and our own culture) is another chance, and it is precisely this message that we are meant to bear into this modern Ninevah in which the Church is now embedded. That message of another chance is, of course, good news. But lest we find ourselves rejoicing too quickly at a surprising offer of grace that we don’t deserve, there is something that the ancient Ninevites teach us that we must do first: repent.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
See today's additional blog post here.