FEBRUARY 29, 2012, - WEDNESDAY OF 1ST WEEK OF LENT: JONAH 3:11-10 ; LUKE 11:29-32

AT THE PREACHING OF JONAH THE PEOPLE REPENTED.  Jesus addressed these words to the people of his own day as a sharp criticism of their attachment to material satisfactions and consequent dullness of spirit. They were resistant to the interior, spiritual values that his person and preaching set before them. The point he makes here is that the Ninevites to whom the prophet Jonah was sent to warn of impending punishment for their sinful ways, in marked contrast to the people he now speaks to, required no other stimulus to repent than the prophet’s word. They trusted that he spoke in God’s name and so believed in the divine warning. They did not demand a miraculous sign but rather displayed their readiness to repent in performing acts of penance such as fasting and sitting in ashes and wearing poor clothes. In contrast to the Jews of Jesus’ time, the pagan Ninevites did not demand miraculous signs as a condition for acting on the prophetic word and for a sincere change of heart.

 A more critical reading of the book of Jonah in modern times has been able to recognize that this apparently simple narrative is, in fact, a highly sophisticated composition. Discerning scholars, after studious consideration, have realized that the story as presented in this inspired book, far from being a naïve account of an ancient prophet, is a subtle and elaborate narrative satire. The inspired author has created a didactic fiction, in the form of a legend, not at all an historical narrative. The figure of Jonah as portrayed in this post-exilic book was written after 400 B.C., many centuries after the political dominance of Nineveh. The whole tale is depicted with exaggerated strokes, as a type of self-centered, narrow-minded Jew, rather than a true to life figure. As depicted Jonah is typical of those class of Jews who held a narrowly limited view of God’s grace and mercy, suited rather to their own measure rather than to the great mercy of God. Those men held a cramped concept of God as if He, the Lord of all creation, were concerned only for the Jewish people. However, the author of this work shares the more sympathetic concerns of other post exilic Jews regarding the surrounding nations to whose ways and culture they were forcibly exposed since their return from the Babylonian exile. 

At an earlier age, when the book of Jonah was viewed as a historical narrative, certain metaphorical and legendary features were taken as literal descriptions. Some years ago, when attending a meeting of abbots at another monastery, I visited the library where I consulted a commentary on this prophetic book. I came across in its pages a picture of a medieval illumination. It illustrated the serious compliance of the Ninevites with the decree of their King that was reported in the first reading today. The king ordered that “man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God.” The naïve illustration depicts a donkey whose back is covered with a large sackcloth; his features presenting a decidedly sad visage by way of indicating how thoroughly he shared in the sorrowful regret of the sinful city that is expressed by his sharing in their fasting and rough covering. Naïve as is this artistic and literal interpretation of the repentance of the Ninivites, it effectively illustrates the satiric nature of this whole story.

The last sentence of this prophetic book makes clear the author’s theological purpose of the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, remains a revealed truth that has taken on fresh significance for us in our recent history of deadly conflict with several Muslim nations. The concluding words of the book of Jonah are presented as spoken by God himself. He gently but decidedly chastises Jonah for his exclusivist and resentful attitude. The Lord explicitly makes it clear that the message of this prophecy that God is loving and so prefers mercy to vengeful justice. He states his point in this final sentence. “Should I not spare the great city Nineveh in which more than 1,200,000 people live, who do not know their right hand from their left - and that does not count in the animals.” 

Jesus, in citing this prophetic work, makes effective use of this didactic legend so as to give it a greatly enhanced significance.  His reference is to the three days Jonah is said to spend in the belly of the whale. Our Lord sees this legendary event as a prophetic sign of the three days he was to pass in the tomb following upon his death on the cross. This, then, is the final meaning of the message that this story of the Jewish prophet comes to convey to us today as it is presented to us in these two readings in this first week of Lent. We are encouraged to accompany our Lord in spirit, to the best of our capacity during this season of repentance and penance, confident that his sojourn in the tomb will bring us, as it did him, into the fullness of unending life in the loving presence of God the merciful, eternal Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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