Imitating Jonah and the Ninevites

Today’s reading comes from JON 3:1-10

There are two phrases I that find quite disturbing in the English language and they are: ‘necessary evil’ and ‘the lesser evil’.  These phrases are often used to justify an evil action by looking toward some future good that the current evil action can produce.  For me, these are the kind of policies that the prince of darkness employs in order to ruin our call to holiness.  God’s policy contrasts to this: He works to extract what goodness there is left in the evil already done by extending His mercy towards the repentant.  This is how the wisdom of God differs so drastically from the slyness of the Devil.

The story of Jonah is a story of the failure of a prophet and success of a sinning nation.  Jonah is a prophet, and while we might see a resemblance of him to Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah insofar as he protests his calling, we are quickly directed towards his complete disregard for what God wants and acts according to his own will.  Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah may have deemed themselves unworthy and protested initially against their callings, they nevertheless took up their tasks.  Jonah, on the other hand, not only protests but attempts to run from his calling: the Lord directed him to go east to Nineveh and he took a ship west to Tarshish (Jon. 1:3).  The reason for his protest and flee is revealed near the end of the book: he doesn’t want Nineveh to be saved; he wants the people to be destroyed for their sins.

Jonah’s flee can provide us with two fascinating conclusions.  First, in answering the sailors as to who he is, Jonah reveals that he is a Hebrew and worships YHWH.  Yet, the irony is that while his tongue confesses his faith in God, the feet are busy disobeying Him.  Second, Jonah understands the basics of Israel’s profession of faith in God—that God is just and merciful—but he also wants to confine its applicability only to the chosen nation.  This of course is ironic since Jonah confesses that God is Lord over all Heaven and earth.

What is fascinating about God’s mercy as justice in the book of Jonah is that it is extended to the Ninevites, a group of Assyrians who were Israel and Judah’s enemies.  After all, it was Assyria who conquered Israel and exiled the people; it was also Assyria that laid siege to Jerusalem and wasted Judah’s forty-six cities.  Surely it could not be these enemies that God wants to be saved—and such was Jonah’s thought.  Yet, what emerges from these events is a God whose justice was dealt out as mercy when upon hearing Jonah’s “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the king of Nineveh and his subjects all repented.   True to Jonah’s profession that God’s sovereignty is universal, the Lord extends His mercy even to the enemies of Israel.  Yet, God’s mercy is not lavished indiscriminately; God’s mercy is given in response to true repentance.

Lastly, YHWH’s justice is tempered by His slow to anger.  God’s slow to anger is expressed by Jonah in his response to God in 4:2, and this is the reason why Nineveh was not destroyed sooner and given a chance to repent.  If it was up to Jonah, he would have had God’s justice swift and becoming when sin and disobedience have happened.  Ironically, Jonah could not see that he would have received some form of punishment for his disobedience when directed to head to Nineveh by YHWH.  Thus, when tempered by slow to anger, both Jonah and Nineveh enjoyed justice as it is poured forth in accordance with the divine will.

Let us then imitate both Jonah and the Ninevites in our repentance in approaching the Lord.  Humility begins when we accept our own shortcomings and allow the Lord to interiorly renovate us.

Happy Wednesday of the first week of Lent, friends.