Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19
“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation . . .. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”
If there was an Axis of Evil in the memory of the ancient Judeans, it surely included Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—not also at once, of course, but in sequence. The author of the book of Jonah was very much aware that Assyria was remembered as an Evil Empire when he wrote that pungent parable about an Israelite prophet commissioned to preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians. (This is the only biblical reference to a prophet of Israel being sent by God to deliver a message of God to another nation.) If you know the least bit of Old Testament geography, you know that Nineveh sits near the source of the Tigris River—in what is northern Iraq.
Jonah hates the idea of being sent to the ancient enemy. The very idea that the God of Israel cares enough to call them to conversion is repugnant to his narrow, exclusivist sense of his religion. In today’s first reading, we come to the place where Jonah proceeds to announce the destruction of Nineveh and, by God, the king of Nineveh leads all the people, including the livestock, into fasting and wearing sackcloth, hoping that God will change his mind. The rest of this short story tells how angry Jonah becomes at this change of heart and how he watches to see if God won’t still destroy the city. Clearly, the story was meant to use the figure of Jonah to parody the narrow notion of God that the author found among some of his post-exilic Judean contemporaries.
Luke’s version of the “sign of Jonah” saying understands the sign to be the prophet himself--in contrast with the version of Matthew 12:40-41, where the sign is Jonah’s being in the belly of the fish for three days, paralleling Jesus’ death and resurrection. Do we dare let the geography of this story (Nineveh in modern Iraq) prompt thoughts about our own notions of good guys, bad guys, Iraq, and the compassion of God? I will resist drawing any parallel between Mr. Bush and the prophet Jonah. If anyone is a prophet for us in our contemporary situation, it is Pope John Paul II. If there is an imperial power on Earth today it is the U.S.A. You will notice that our prophetic Pope has been speaking loudly and clearly against our rush to war with Iraq, even as he has, in quieter tones, urged Mr. Hussein to co-operate with the inspections and to disarm.
It is interesting that our officials are, like Jonah, disturbed by
the enemy’s apparent compliance. But don’t let that lead us into
identifying with Jonah. In this context, as the most powerful nation
on the planet, we ourselves had probably better identify with Nineveh.
Then we might hear the Vicar of Christ calling us to restrain our power,
take our place humbly among the nations and work collaboratively to resolve
our crises in nonviolent ways, leaving military means as a last resort.
Just possibly, that is the Lenten conversion asked of us this season.
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