To call Jonah a reluctant prophet would be a gross understatement. He literally runs in the opposite direction of his calling to preach repentance to the Ninevites. At one level, it’s hard to blame him. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of the hated enemies of God’s people.
(This is the fourth part of a series where Thomas Smith takes a closer look at six prophets from the Old Testament, God’s messengers. If you missed the previous posts, you can click here to catch up!)
Pride and Prejudice
At first glance, the message to his enemies doesn’t seem that hopeful:
“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”Jonah 1:2
Why does Jonah resist? The message doesn’t promise forgiveness or redemption, it simply declares their wickedness. Jonah understood that this warning was an invitation, the possibility of mercy, if the people would respond to the warning and turn from their wickedness.
Rather than rejoice at this potential penitence of his enemy, Jonah refuses to participate. We all know the whale of a tale that will unfold to get our prophet turned in the right direction. He gives the warning, the people repent, all is good, right? Wrong.
For Jonah, this was the worst possible outcome. In effect he said to God afterwards, “I knew you’d do something like this!! That’s why I ran in the opposite direction.” Quoting the language of Exodus, through gritted teeth he cries:
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”Jonah 4:2-3
It’s easy to judge Jonah for being so close-minded, insular, and stingy with God’s mercy. But Jonah’s unwillingness is designed to act as a literary mirror we can use to gaze upon ourselves.
In what ways do we resist the plans of God? Are there particular persons or groups of people we wish God would just destroy rather than ask us to go to them as messengers of his mercy? Do we ever hesitate to share Christ with people that are very different from us or we perceive to be our enemies? Do we automatically assume people will reject our offer, so we never bother to share the Good News?
These are hard questions to be sure, but if we possess even a shred of self-knowledge, we would acknowledge we may be more like Jonah than we would care to admit.
Where Are Today’s Ninevites?
In a 2007 interview, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio) said:
“Nineveh was the symbol of all the separated, the lost, of all the peripheries of humanity. Of all those who are outside, forlorn. Jonah saw that the task set on him was only to tell all those people that the arms of God were still open, that the patience of God was there and waiting, to heal them with His forgiveness and nourish them with His tenderness.”
The book of Jonah ends without any real resolution. Our proud prophet’s prejudice seems impenetrable. As the Body of Christ, we are called to resist that kind of attitude, and instead turn our attention to the Ninevites of our world. May we do that with great passion and compassion.
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Thomas Smith is the co-author of Wisdom: God’s Vision for Life, Revelation: The Kingdom Yet to Come and The Prophets: Messengers of God’s Mercy. He is an international presenter for The Great Adventure Bible Timeline. Bringing a wealth of experience and insight on the Word of God to audiences across the U.S., Thomas is a repeat guest on EWTN and Catholic radio as well as a sought after parish mission and conference speaker. Thomas Smith has taught as an adjunct professor at the St. Francis School of Theology in Denver, and is the former Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catechetical School. He lives on his family ranch in southeastern Idaho and writes for his website www.gen215.org.
This article was first posted on The Great Adventure Blog, Ascension Blog’s former home, October 9, 2014. To learn more about The Great Adventure Bible study click below.
Featured image, Jonah and the Whale (1621), by Pieter Lastman sourced from Wikimedia Commons