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.
You May Also Like:
Prophets: Messengers of God’s Mercy [Bible study program]
Meet the Messengers: Hosea
Meet the Messengers: Isaiah
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
I am light Jonah at the start as I am the ultimate coward. However I am always open to forgive and embrace everyone .
Oops on further brutally honest reflection. I need to restate that last statement. I am always opet to forgive and embrace everyone as long as they don’t get too close.
Love that Jonah
I suspect that I am one of too many people with the Jonah-syndrome. When called, I am convinced that I will completely mess everything up. God knows my strengths and weaknesses and I know this, but fail to trust that He always gives what is needed. Although Jonah ran, sometimes we don’t run in the same way, instead we close our eyes and put our fingers in our ears. Like Adam and Eve, we try to hide even though in our hearts, we know He sees and knows everything.
On the bright side, God did not abandon Jonah and does not abandon us.
Avila, I am afraid that with me, it is worse that just closing my eyes. I am afraid of what people will say. There are many things that need to be said today that are “not politically correct”
I think the words “I trust in you Lord” are so easy to say, but so many of us find it difficult to live them. It can be very hard to discern whether God’s will is to speak or keep silent.
You are very right Avila. I so admire the Christians in the Middle East who are suffering so. I pray for them always
I think I’m getting bolder as I get older, and yet I find I’m resistant to sharing Christ with people I think will be unreceptive to the message. Perhaps I need to step more out of my comfort zone, go out on a limb more.
Yet I’m lucky that I have many opportunities to witness to fallen away Catholics and others who are interested in learning more about God.
I pray for the present-day witnesses and martyrs across the world who bravely share the Gospel in spite of the persecution. I think Americans need to learn from the martyrs because I see how our country is turning away from God. We have to take a stand. We have to learn our faith inside and out because we are the modern-day disciples. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
I echo your statement on sharing with those I think will be unreceptive, a warped fear of rejection I suppose. I need that perfect love that casts out all fear.
Sunday I had a discussion with my son about how much support we should give to those who do not share our Catholic Faith but share our Christian Values. He mentioned this in reguard to an Evangelical Protestant endorsed our local Catholic radio station.
I just pray God will forgive me for all the times I failed to share the Gospel. I chickened out when I should of been brave, I feel I will mess up and look like a fool and make out Lord look like a fairy tale. That is why I study the Catholic faith, because I know God needs all of us to spread his love.
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
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Read your Bible every day to get to know Christ better.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”(2 Timothy 2:15)
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Talk to God in prayer every day.
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