3rd Sunday in Ordinary time
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
As a young boy, I loved listening to and reading the story of Jonah and the whale. To the present day I have a fascination with these mammals. As an infant’s teacher, I reveled in recounting the story to children and marveled at their interpretation and expression of the narrative through art and drama.
Some years ago, I read in a tourist brochure about a bronze sculptured whale dedicated to this biblical story sitting in a street of the old Sea port of Jaffa. So, during my last trip to Israel in 2018, I was determined to find the bronze sculpture of the “the big fish” or whale that swallowed Jonah. Having arrived in Tel Aviv, I headed off for the ancient port of Jaffa, south of the city, in search of it.
It was not until then, much later in life, that I really began to explore the true meaning of the Jonah narrative which leads to my reflection on today’s first reading and the conclusion that the purpose of the narrative is meant to teach us something about ourselves and God’s infinite compassion and mercy for all people.
Basically, the crux of the narrative has much to do with the disgust and anger directed towards God by Jonah, who is asked to go and preach forgiveness and conversion to the Ninevites, the enemies of the Israelites. In today’s context probably like asking an Israelie to go into the west Bank/Gaza and preach to the Palestinians and vice versa. Can you imagine it?
Jonah runs away and we know the end of the story – He cries out to God for mercy from the depths of the bowels of the whale, and he is spat out, and given a second chance.
Once again, he is sent to Nineveh (modern-day Mosul in Iraq) and the Ninevites repent and go through a complete conversion. Once again, the moral of the story is not so much the conversion of the Ninevites but about, I am convinced, Jonah’s anger and reaction towards God. In the chapter following today’s texts, there is a justification for Jonah’s behaviour, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2).
The challenge for us is to try and understand the ways of God, and to face the ways we try to lay claim to him and his gift of mercy and compassion.
The underlying theme of the Book of Johnah is that of compassion. One of the great lessons of Johnah’s failure and forgiveness is that God continues to use those who return to him. We see this continually in the stories of individuals in the Old and New Testaments – Adam, Moses, and Paul and Peter who denied him. This has been the story of the church through the ages. Thankfully we belong to a God of “second chances.”
Another important point to acknowledge here is Jonah’s failure to see how God modeled forgiveness, mercy, and compassion in how he dealt with other people, in this instance the Ninevites. So, what are the lessons to be taken from this Narrative?
Firstly, that God’s Mercy is extended to all – God expresses his disappointment in Jonah and to others for thinking otherwise.
Secondly, you can’t hide from God – Jonah learnt this the hard way, running away from his mission thinking he could circumvent his obligation as a prophet.
Thirdly, everyone deserves compassion irrespective of who and what they are despite their socio-economic background, race, colour creed or gender.
Finally, God’s love can change People. This is one of the cornerstones of our faith, as God’s love does change people. Jonah was a completely different person in the beginning of this book than he was at the end of it. God had to put him through a trial to help him realise why he needed to change.
This, then, maybe the most important lesson of all, which is that God’s love can and does change people. This was the case with Jonah, and this is the case for us today.
God still has compassion for the whole world, even for those we might think do not deserve it. Nothing has happened to change his mind.
Michael Schiano has been a member of St. Brigid’s parish since 1990. As a parish member, he has served on the Parish Pastoral Council, Liturgy Committee, and Bereavement Team and is a member of the Passionist Companions. He has been an educator in the Archdiocese and has held positions in middle management and executive leadership positions. He currently works in Aged Care in the roles of Pastoral Care Co-Ordinator at Brigidine House, Randwick; St. Anne’s Hunters Hill; and Chaplaincy, Pastoral Care Officer at Calvary Ryde.