Jonah is one of the great Bible stories. The danger with them all
is that we may focus on the narrative details and miss the message
the story is intended to convey. In this case, the plot line, stripped
of all its fantastic and fascinating color, is: Jonah is called;
he tries to duck the call; he finally accedes; then he sulks when
things don’t go as he expected.
Taken out of his Middle-Eastern locale, Jonah is a stand-in for
all of us. Recognize anyone?
God asked Jonah to challenge the Ninevites to repent – that
is to change their priorities and to act accordingly. “Repent”
didn’t mean to express remorse, but to recognize that they
had been focusing on the wrong things, and literally to change the
direction of their lives. He was told to tell them that they would
face disaster if they didn’t. “Repent” was Jesus’
message to His fellow Jews nearly 2,100 years ago; that’s
exactly what He told His disciples to say as He sent them out into
the hinterlands of Galilee; and that’s exactly the message
He asks us, his disciples in the 21st century, to announce as well.
Jonah didn’t expect the Ninevites to welcome his message.
He thought they would likely kill him. After all, who wants to hear
that he has his priorities all wrong? People want positive, uplifting
messages. And besides: “Who gave you the right to criticize
my choices?” It is a challenge. No wonder Jonah balked. So
would we. So do we.
Note that God didn’t ask Jonah to lead a pious, religiously
observant life – to say his prayers and keep all the rules
faithfully. He was asked to go out of himself, to save others, to
save Nineveh – the enemy!
Some of our preaching has to be by example. What are our priorities?
Are we seeking first the rule of God and His justice (as Jesus told
us to do)? Or do we put those priorities in second or third or even
last place? It’s sobering to realize that it’s not just
Jonah who was called; each of us is called as well. While each of
our calls will be different, we can know for certain that we will
be asked to go out of our comfort zone, as was Jonah, to risk criticism
and contempt. We’ll be asked to abandon most or all of our
security systems. No wonder we want to run away.
There is a hymn from the Iona community, The Summons, that
we sometimes sing at Mass, as we gather as the People of God. If
we pay attention to its words, we will note God asking us “.
. . will you go where you don’t know? . . . will you let My
love be shown? . . . will you let My name be known? . . . will you
risk the hostile stare?”
That’s what the book of Jonah is all about. That’s why
Jonah – an amusing satire when taken by itself – is
in the canon of the Bible.