The first reading usually gets ignored, so maybe it is time to take a look at Jonah. When we hear his name we think of one or two things: three days in the belly of a whale, or a character who brings bad luck wherever he goes. He is, at best, an unwilling missionary, a bigot, who by his own admission hated foreigners. He did not deem them worthy of his time and effort, or of the message that he was sent to preach.
We are told that the Lord orders Jonah to go to Ninerva, the Capital of Assyria. He is to preach repentance to the Ninevites for their wickedness has come before the Lord. This vocation brings no joy to Jonah. Preach repentance to Pagans, announce salvation to non-Jews, not for Jonah. He runs away and buys a ticket on a freighter and in the midst of a storm, the pagan sailors draw lots to discover who has brought them such bad luck.
Of course, it is Jonah and he gets thrown overboard. Swallowed by a whale who takes him to where God wants him to go and preach to the Ninevites. So why put such a reluctant prophet in God’s book? The point is the book of Jonah is not really centered on Jonah. Yes, it tells us much about him, but it tells us much more about God. Yes, we discover once again how stupid a man sent by God can be, how difficult for him to grasp the goodness of his God, how narrow his outlook on those who are different, who worship other Gods.
More importantly we glimpse through Jonah how good God is, how loving, how His compassion embraces every creature in His universe. All people are of His caring, and so all are called to repent, for to repent simply means to turn to God. Jonah could not see that. He was not a bad person, just myopic, shortsighted, too wrapped up in his narrow nationalism. God was his God, God of the Hebrews, imprisoned in one country, one temple, one Ark of the Covenant.
The meaning of the story of Jonah is that God’s loving mercy waits for all who repent, wherever they live, whatever they have done. Jonah tried to limit God to his own people, and he had to find out the hard way that no one is exempt from God’s love and His mercy. What message does his story have for us?
I think that the first message it gives is to think big about God. Do not limit God. We have to admit that many times we Christians shape God in our own image. In each case, a dreadfully small God.
Some of us still believe that only Roman Catholics will get into heaven. Some will let other Christians in, but only on a selective basis, as long as they’re our kind of people. Some are not sure that they will get in, they cannot forgive themselves, even for things done long ago. Or tragically, refuse to believe that God can or will forgive them. My sin is too great. God will never forgive me, again, limiting God.
Some try to run from God. But most of us flee God in some way, at some time, to some extent. Some of us limit God to one hour a week. Resent it if mass is a little long. Some ignore God, He cannot help me. My marriage is breaking up and it is killing me. Did you think to discuss that with the Lord? My loved one is dying, it is so cruel, I hate God. Why don’t you tell Him that? After 30 years in one company, I am being laid off, I am devastated. Take some of that devastation to the foot of the cross.
You see, everything we experience, Christ experienced it before us. In the divine scenario, God’s son would become human just like us. He lived as we live, grew as we grow, ate as we eat, got tired, frustrated. He experienced all of our doubts and fears, and when we exclude Him from our life, when He takes second place, God ceases to be God, and each of us is in danger of being Jonah.
We cannot let this happen. We must not run from God or ignore Him. To only think of Him on Sunday is rather like holding your breath for a week. Challenge God if you must. Ask Him to show you His face. Dump your anger and resentment on Him. But do not flee from Him, do not try to run away or ignore Him.
I did not say that if you keep fleeing you will be miserable. I have never forgotten a moral theology professor telling me one day, “Do not let anyone tell you that sinners are not happy, at least for a time.”
This I do promise you: if you stop fleeing and running from God, if in response to Jesus you repent and believe in the Gospel, if you turn to the God who lives and loves, and lives inside of you, a God who loves you so much that even when He left you, He stayed with you in the Eucharist. For in the final analysis we can echo the words of St. Peter…Lord, to whom should we go? Only You have the words of eternal life.