by Father Mike Stubbs
Usually, a book of one of the prophets in the Old Testament contains words of the prophet.
These prophetic sayings often resemble sermons and frequently appear in poetic language. It is through these prophetic sayings, or oracles, that God speaks to us.
In contrast, the book of the prophet Jonah presents us with precious little of the prophet’s words. That is not the way that God is speaking to us in this book. Instead, the book describes various events in Jonah’s life. It is through those events that God is speaking to us in this book.
God would like to speak through Jonah, but Jonah drags his feet in responding to God’s call. When God orders Jonah to travel to Nineveh, Jonah jumps aboard a ship headed in the very opposite direction. That is why God sends a great fish to swallow him up.
When Jonah finally ends up in Nineveh and warns the people about their impending punishment, they repent. Sunday’s first reading — Jon 3:1-5, 10 — tells us the story. Much to Jonah’s disappointment, God forgives the Nineties and does not punish them. This is the message that comes to us through this event: that God is all merciful. Jonah is reluctant to share that message with others, especially the Ninevites, the traditional enemies of Israel.
This message of God’s mercy is meant not only for the Ninevites, but also for us. It is a good preparation for Lent, which will begin in only a few weeks. (Notice that the 40 days that Jonah announces as the waiting period before the Ninevites’ punishment matches the 40 days of Lent.)
The corollary to the message that God wants to for- give us of our sins informs us that God also wishes to forgive our enemies. That can be hard to swallow. The message that made Jonah a reluctant prophet can also make us narrow-minded and intolerant.
The story of Jonah gives us an example of how not to respond to God’s call. It also teaches us that God’s mercy can overcome our own weaknesses and failures in carrying out God’s will.
Whenever we accept the message that God wishes to forgive even our enemies, that should help us in turn to forgive them. That should help us to live up to the words of the Our Father, where we ask God for mercy: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
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