NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JONAH 3: 1-5, 10
THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
"Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you."
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD'S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day's walk announcing,
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, "
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
The Book of Jonah breaks the mold for what we typically think of Biblical books. Long a basic staple of religious instruction-as much for its captivating narrative as for its underlying theological implications—Jonah is remembered primarily for its scientific improbability of a man spending three days in the belly of a whale (and whales are herbivorous, at that). That the tale of the whale comprises only a modest part of this four-chapter work is generally not fully appreciated. Sunday’s reading selection is restricted to Jonah’ immediate ministry in Nineveh, bypassing the prophet’s previous avoidance of duty as well as his later angst about the outcome of God’s work.
The full book of Jonah can best be termed religious satire. It was written quite late in Jewish history, possibly reflecting a controversy among Jews over the nature of redemption: were pagans worthy of a shot at salvation? Jonah himself does not think so, seeing himself as the harbinger of another Sodom and Gomorrah scenario which he seems to relish, God’s destruction of a wicked foreign city. In fact, Jonah does not really preach a call to redemption at all, fixated as he was on the upcoming apocalypse. Sunday’s text reports that he went about for a day exclaiming: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Sunday’s text edits out verses 6-9, where the king of Nineveh plays the real prophet himself. He [the king] calls for a massive fast and show of repentance, and then he adds, “And who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish.” The king delivers the full message, not Jonah, who is quite infuriated that he will not be the grand master of a show of divine wrath.
The Book of Jonah may have been written as late as 200 B.C., long after the death of the last classical prophet of Israel. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, one of the Café’s regular sources, places the Book of Jonah at the very end of the Old Testament canon. In reviewing the JBC’s introduction to Jonah, I am struck by the observations of Father Anthony R. Ceresko, who writes: “In Jonah, one of the last representations of a prophetic figure, we find not someone of heroic nature but a caricature of a prophet” which Ceresko attributes to the disillusionment with and disappearance of prophesy that marked this period. That said, the book reflects a profound humility; the unknown author of Jonah turns our eyes from prophets to the One whose messengers they were, the One who can achieve his ends sometimes even despite envoys like Jonah. (JBC, p. 580)
Sunday’s text is slightly misleading as presented above; it is paired in the Lectionary with Mark 1: 14-20. I would have some difficulty bringing these texts together in a sermon, given that the first reading overlooks what a poor prophet Jonah actually was. Mark, by contrast, speaks of John the Baptist’s arrest for heroic preaching [John was widely regarded as a prophet from of old], and then describes the proclamation of Jesus: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."
Jesus was aware of the Book of Jonah and quotes it in two Gospels. He was probably aware of Jonah’s shortcomings as a prophet. The final chapter of Jonah describes the prophet absorbed in self-pity that God’s mercy overturned his hoped-for outcome of punishment, and that he [Jonah] had been greatly inconvenienced and dispatched on a wild goose chase—through a whale’s stomach, no less. In both of Sunday’s passages—Jonah and Mark—the goodness and the glory of God’s saving love are made manifest. The Ninevites, all 120,000, are redeemed and forgiven. In Mark, Jesus extends an invitation to repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand, and this invitation is immediately seized upon by the men who would form the Twelve.
The constant in both readings is the closeness and constancy of God’s mercy. A poor prophet such as Jonah could still effect, even unwillingly, the call of God to repentance. John the Baptist and Jesus, who both gave everything they had for the sake of the kingdom, would do likewise in calling the world to penance. As Ceresko writes, the giant persona of the classical Old Testament prophet was being replaced by the imminent presence of the One who wishes to save all.