The first reading Monday through Wednesday this week is from the Book of Jonah. This is one of my favorite books from the Hebrew Bible, both for its brilliant writing style and because I can very much relate to it. Jonah is a very short postexilic writing, and its literary style is both parable and satire.
The story is about a disobedient, narrow-minded prophet who is called to deliver a message of repentance to the city of Ninevah, the one-time capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had conquered Israel and destroyed Jerusalem. As such, Jonah had a right to be angry at Ninevah, at least according to human standards. Jonah ignored his prophetic call and fled westward, the opposite direction of Ninevah. When Jonah’s ship encounters storms, Jonah tells the sailors to hurl him into the sea, which they reluctantly do. Jonah is swallowed up by a great fish where he stays for three days and nights until he ends up where he started.
Jonah was called a second time to go to Ninevah and preach repentance. This time he agrees to go. The Ninevahites did repent, fasting and putting on sackcloth. A logical reaction for Jonah would be to be very proud of himself for saving 120,000 lives and thankful for God’s mercy. Instead he become very angry with God for having compassion on a longstanding enemy of Israel. Jonah goes to the desert to sulk but God provides him with a gourd plant for shade. When a worm eats the plant, Jonah again becomes angry with God for his minor discomfort, but still lacks compassion for the inhabitants of Ninevah.
The story of Jonah is obviously about God’s unlimited love and compassion, even to those who have done very bad things, such as destroying the city that housed the Holy Temple. It is also about the prophetic call that each of us have to follow the divine plans that we were created for. Jonah tried to flee from his calling. I often want to flee from the callings I have in life, whether it be my commitments at work, to my family, to my Church, to my prison ministry, etc. Moreover, at times when I am brutally honest, like Jonah I only want God’s grace and mercy to extend to me and my immediate clan. I do not want God to show love and tenderness to those who have wronged me. It violates my infantile sense of justice. I really enjoy the story of Jonah because in so many ways I am like him. I cling to my ego and sense of being right rather than showing infinite compassion like God does.
Ultimately, the story of Jonah helps keep me grounded. Whenever I get angry about some perceived sense of injustice, I reflect on Jonah sulking beneath the gourd plant which helps put the infinite nature of God’s love in perspective.
New American Bible Revised Edition Commentary
Living Space Commentary (Monday)
Living Space Commentary (Tuesday)
Living Space Commentary (Wednesday)
Vatikos Website on the Theology of the Book of Jonah