The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jonah 3:1–5, 10
January 24, 2021
The book of Jonah is difficult to date with great precision, but scholars suggest that it was written sometime between 300 and 250 BC. This would have been after the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the breakup of his empire after his death in 323 BC. Even the most biblically illiterate person knows of it because of the story of Jonah and the whale, but its message is sublime and one that we may need to ponder now.
The story takes place in Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians. It was in Northern Iraq near modern day Mosul. Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC. Such was the cruelty of the Assyrians that Nineveh was hated by the Jews 300 years later. The rarely read book of Nathan is a joy filled hymn celebrating its destruction.
Yet let us look at the message of the book of Jonah:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,(Jon 1:1–2)
“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it;
for their wickedness has come up before me.
His response was to run away and be swallowed by the aforementioned fish. He ran, because the LORD did not say that he was sending him to destroy Nineveh but to cry out against it. He understood that the LORD wanted Nineveh to be converted and saved. Jonah would not agree to this. We should not think too harshly of Jonah. If you hate any group, call it to mind and then multiply the hatred to understand his feelings. We are told that Jonah was man of Northern Israel, which was destroyed by the Assyrians and its people deported in 721 BC. Would we be able to forgive them and more than that be the means by which they are saved from the wrath of God?
Today we see the LORD come a second time to Jonah. He is told to tell the people “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”(Jon 3:4b) Nineveh was “awesomely large” and it would take 3 days to walk through it. Yet after only one day: “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” (Jon 3:5)
In a section not in our reading today: this included the king:
He rose from his throne, removed his robe,(Jon 3:6–7)
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
He then issues a proclamation which went beyond what the Lord required:
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and(Jon 3:8)
call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way and
from the violence he has in hand.
He even requires the animals to participate and so respects the LORD that he does not think that he will be automatically forgiven.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and(Jon 3:9)
withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.
It was however accepted:
When God saw by their actions(Jon 3:10)
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.
Jonah’s mission was a success: “But this was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (Jon 4:1)
I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God,(Jon 4:2–3)
slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish.
And now, LORD, please take my life from me;
for it is better for me to die than to live.
The pagan Ninevites heard the word of God and acted on it. Although Jonah a member of the chosen people spoke those words, he did not hear them. Indeed, he felt himself a traitor to his people and wished to die. His view was purely nationalistic. This not only narrowed his political view, but also his theological one. He is trying to reduce God to merely a local and partisan deity. He is however the creator God who made the universe including the Ninevites. The book ends with the LORD’S statement of intent:
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,(Jon 4:11)
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons
who do not know their right hand from their left,
and also many animals?”
The author of the Book of Jonah had learned the lessons of the great prophets after the exile especially 2nd Isaiah and Zechariah.
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,(Is 42:6)
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
Thus says the LORD of hosts:(Zec 8:23)
In those days ten men from nations of every language
shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying,
“Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
After their near-death experience in the exile, the Jews were reborn and chosen, not to be one nation among many nor even the most powerful, but to be the means of salvation for all nations, all peoples even those who were hostile to them. The book of Jonah reveals that many Jews of the time did not learn this lesson and were still narrowly nationalistic. The author desires to education them and broaden their horizons to include the love of enemies.
Perhaps our horizons need to be widened as well.
Bishop Thomas Papocki of Springfield, IL addresses this with perceptive questions for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord:
Are you a follower of Christ or just an admirer of Christ?
If you think that you are very good at loving your enemies and therefore are a true follower of Christ, I pose this question to you:
If you voted for Joe Biden for President, can you say that you love Donald Trump and his supporters?
If you voted to re-elect Donald Trump, can you say that you love Joe Biden and his supporters?
The question makes people uncomfortable because we tend to equate love with a warm feeling of affection. Loving someone does not mean, however, that you must agree with them or even like them. Love involves something much more profound than that. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that “to love is to will the good of the other.”
Or in the words of the Second Vatican Council: “in our time a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception.” (Gaudium et Spes)
Let us be truly exceptional and cease looking for exceptions.