Readings for Today
The story of Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. Jonah is the reluctant prophet. He does not want to go to the people of Nineveh, he does not care about their salvation, he does not care that it is God who is asking him to go. The introduction to the book of Jonah in the New American Bible says this: “It concerns a disobedient prophet who rejected his divine commission, was cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish, rescued in a marvelous manner, and returned to his starting point. Now he obeys and goes to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s ancient enemy.”
Why is it that Jonah does not want to go? Because he does not care for the Ninevites. They are the enemy, the “them” in an us and them world. And so, he is angry that he is asked to warn them. But there is more. It becomes more pronounced when it becomes clear to Jonah he must preach, and goes. But, alas, he preaching has effect, and Jonah gets mad again. Rather than rejoicing in the acceptance of God’s grace, Jonah becomes angry that Nineveh is not destroyed.
There are so many levels to this story. First, there is the primacy of God’s love. Were I God, I would have had a hard time putting up with Jonah. He hardly seems to be the type of person that would be a good messenger. I picture him as a surly, angry, cynical person, the type that says “that will never work” or “no” to any new or different idea. But I am not God, and God stays with Jonah because unlike me, God can see into Jonah’s heart and beyond the rough exterior.
The Introduction to the New American Bible chapter of the book of Jonah also points out this irony. “The book is replete with irony, wherein much of its humor lies. The name “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew, but Jonah’s character is anything but dove-like.” Not the pleasant prophet, but the one who runs far away from God, only to wind up again where he began, and one who is hardly enthusiastic in his message. In fact, his message is devoid of any mention of God, or any concern that these people will convert and turn to God.
In this story though is hope for us. God does not abandon us, turn his back, or give up. No, God is always seeking to find new ways that we might recognize and respond to God’s grace. Such is the message of Jonah, and of Lent. Let us pray for open hearts, that instead of turning away from God, we might turn toward God and new life.