“Down I went to the roots of the mountains; the bars of the netherworld were closing behind me forever, but you brought up my life from the pit” (Jonah 2:7). Unlike other prophetic books in the Bible, this one is not a collection of oracles, but it is a story about a disobedient, narrow-minded prophet. This comes out in two ways: first, he actually thinks that he can escape the Lord by fleeing from Israel to the far west, to Tarshish, at the very western edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Secondly, after he is swallowed by the great fish and is deposited back in his homeland, he finally goes to Nineveh and preaches the word of the Lord to the people there about their sins and their impending destruction if they do not repent of their sins. When the Ninevites respond to Jonah’s prophecy from God, and the king to the lowliest subject put on sackcloth and repent, and the Lord does not punish them, Jonah becomes angry with the Lord.
Though Jonah knows enough to recognize that God is both the cause of the storm the ship he is on encounters, and though it is to the Lord that he prays this prayer from which today’s verse is taken, he still has a very narrow sense of the Lord. He sees God’s interests only extending to Israel. But God shows himself to be concerned with and even forgiving of the Ninevites. Jonah only sees these inhabitants of the great capital city of the Assyrian empire as the great enemy that had swallowed up the Northern Kingdom of Israel and who had devastated Jerusalem. Jonah seems not able to accept the fact that God is free to “change his mind” and tells the Lord he wants no part of his decision and that he would rather die.
Do we sometimes fall into the kind of thinking that Jonah expresses here? Do we think that God is only on our side? Do we become frustrated, or upset with God when he shows mercy to our enemies? Do we sometimes limit God’s care and generosity only to us? God is calling us all, just as he did Jonah, to preach his word to all the peoples of the world, yes, even to our enemies. Why? Because all human beings are God’s children, he is concerned for all of them, those “who cannot know their right hand from their left,” because they do not yet know God, and even those who have made themselves enemies. He wants all to be saved. He wants others to be drawn to conversion through our prophetic ministry in his name. This is why he is challenging us in this day and age to be prophets of the Good News to all people. We are to participate in the salvation of the world by courageously and faithfully preaching his word with our very lives. We are to see others as the Lord sees them, not as “Ninevites,” or “enemies.” When the Lord sent Jonah to Nineveh to preach to them about their sins and the natural consequences of sin, that is, punishment, suffering, etc., his intent was not to punish, but to save. He was using Jonah for that purpose. This is the attitude we are to have toward all those we encounter as well.
Jonah finally obeys God, after his own “punishment” in the belly of the fish, but his faith is not yet mature. Though his faith is great enough to pray to the Lord, he has not yet fully understood the magnanimous, all-encompassing nature of love that moves the Lord in all things, at all times, toward all his children. In the fourth chapter of Jonah we see that the Lord reproves Jonah (and us), telling him that his concerns are too narrow. “You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow…” (Jonah 4:10). God’s concerns are far greater than our little concerns. “And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons, who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?” (4:11). While we may be concerned with things that are close to home and “important” enough for our genuine concern, God’s concerns are for all of the 7 billion persons (as well as all the animals) on this planet, indeed for the entirety of his creation.
Lord, help us to see more as you see. Give us the graces we need to be good, mature and true prophets of your word. Free us from our narrow views. Make our hearts overflow with your love for all of your creation, especially for your children whoever and wherever they are. We pray these things in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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