We all know the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Jonah was called by God to preach against the city of Nineveh. Jonah flees from the Lord – he takes off literally in the opposite direction – intending to go as far away as possible. He gets on a ship, but a tremendous storm ensues that threatens the destruction of the ship and its crew. Jonah admits to the sailors that he is intentionally acting against God’s will and that the storm is the sign and result of his disobedience. He knows that abandoning himself to the stormy sea will bring about the calm. The sailors throw him overboard, the sea calms, and the ship is saved. The Lord sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah knows he has been saved from drowning by the Lord. Despite Jonah’s disobedience, the Lord is merciful to Jonah. Jonah prays, is thankful, and says, “I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the Lord” (2:10). He knows that salvation is from the Lord. The fish spits Jonah up upon dry land. The Lord calls him again to go to Nineveh, and this time, Jonah goes. After only one day hearing the message from Jonah warning of Nineveh’s imminent destruction, the people of Nineveh repented and believed God. Fasting and wearing sackcloth are penitential acts – signs that the Ninevites, including the king of Nineveh, were aware of the evil they committed and the violence they had done. The king calls on the people of his country to turn from evil, to pray, and to ask God for mercy. God sees by their actions how they have repented or turned from their evil ways, and He spares them from destruction. It seems like a happy ending, but Jonah is not happy. It seems like a successful mission, but Jonah was greatly displeased by the outcome and became angry (cf. 4:1). Why? In the dialogue that follows between Jonah and the Lord, we learn why Jonah fled from the mission to which he was called and why, now, he is so angry. A little background… Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s ancient and powerful enemy, Assyria. The Assyrians invaded Israel in 722 BC, conquered the Northern Kingdom, deported the 10 Northern tribes, and forcibly planted foreign ethnic groups in their place. There was literally “bad blood” between the Assyrians and the Israelites. Jonah did not want the Lord to spare Nineveh. He wants, rather, the enemy to be punished. He fled because he knew the intention of the Lord – what his mission was about. He explains to the Lord, “This is why I fled… I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment” (4:2). Jonah wants vengeance. He is not interested in mercy being extended to the enemy. The fact that the Ninevites have been spared eats him up. He would rather die than see his enemy live. He tells the Lord, “please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). He goes away angry, still hoping that Nineveh will be destroyed. The book of Jonah is filled with irony and humorous moments, but it also presents a critique against a narrow-minded, vindictive, and nationalistic attitude among the Israelites. The name “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew, but Jonah’s attitude is far from “dove-like”. He is not interested in peace. The Lord’s reproof of Jonah shows Jonah to be concerned about only his rather small self-interest. The Lord, in contrast, is concerned for the life of all, even those who have committed evil. The story of Jonah is not really about the conversion of Nineveh but the conversion of Jonah. The Lord desires to teach Jonah his ways of mercy and compassion. Jonah shows us what happens to us interiorly if we don’t accept and willingly participate in the Lord’s mission of mercy. We become self-centered, bitter people.
What lesson does Jonah have for us today? What might the Lord be calling us to do as Christians in a country so divided? How is he calling us to conversion in these times in which we are living? In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, there have been many calls for healing, peace, and unity, but most of the actions we’ve seen have been moves to consolidate power and to punish the “enemy”. The thought is, “How can this crisis be used for political advantage? What is in our self-interest.” “Peace” and “unity” in the minds of those who hold political power are tied more to wiping out the opposition than coming together to see what is in the long-term best interest of the nation. I heard a very interesting proposal from a non-partisan commentator last week. He suggested that the only way forward would be for the members of the two parties to “step outside of their tribalistic team allegiances”, reflect on the implications of their actions, and collaborate by letting go of what is in each side’s self-interest for the greater good of the nation. He thinks the former president should be impeached and convicted by the Senate but then pardoned by the President. The president should also pardon all of those involved in the insurrection at the Capital as well as as the BLM protestors who were not involved in any direct violence against other individuals. He thinks that offering pardon is the only way to relieve the pressure that is tearing us apart and to prevent a vengeance-driven politics going forward. Pardon is the only way to put this event behind us along with the agreement among both parties that there will be no tolerance for violence and riots going forward and that all people will be treated equally under the law – that the law won’t be enforced differently depending on who breaks the law. If this secular commentator who is a non-believer can recognize this path forward, why are we, who should know better, like Jonah, so reluctant to accept the Lord’s call to mercy? What are we afraid of? Do we doubt God’s method?
In his apostolic letter introducing the Year of St. Joseph (Patris Corde), Pope Francis comments on how the history of salvation is worked out in and through our weaknesses, not our strengths. Since this is so, says Pope Francis, we must learn to look upon our weaknesses with tender mercy. He writes, “The evil one makes us see and condemn our frailty, whereas the Spirit brings it to light with tender love. Tenderness is the best way to touch the frailty within us. Pointing fingers and judging others are frequently signs of an inability to accept our own weaknesses, our own frailty. Only tender love will save us from the snares of the accuser (cf. Rev 12:10). … Paradoxically, the evil one can also speak the truth to us, yet he does so only to condemn us. We know that God’s truth does not condemn, but instead welcomes, embraces, sustains and forgives us…. Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work. Joseph, then, teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses. He also teaches us that amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times, we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture.” (PC, 2).
We are always called to tell the truth and not be afraid to point out what is wrong, but what enables someone to change and believe in the Gospel is if that truth is accompanied by mercy. If we only speak the truth in order to condemn, we play into the hands of the accuser whose goal is only to divide us. The experience of mercy, when someone loves me in my weakness, reveals that there is a love greater than sin. There is an answer to my weakness that gives me hope. When someone sacrifices themselves for my good – gives up their right for punishment, I am able to see a path forward. I am given hope and a new life. Christ calls each of us to be “fishers of men”, and the “net” that catches men for the Gospel is mercy. God’s mercy has saved us from drowning in our sin and disobedience. If we do not abandon the “nets” of partisanship and tribalism and learn the ways of the Lord, we will remain angry and alone like the prophet Jonah. May we be thankful and recognize that in Jesus we have one “greater than Jonah” here with us and be obedient to Christ’s call to “come and follow me.”