Today’s Old Testament reading only gives us part of the story of Jonah’s call. If we didn’t know the whole story of Jonah we might believe that Jonah is an exemplary servant of God who responds instantly to God’s call like Andrew, Peter, James and John in our Gospel reading. God gave Jonah instructions to go preach to the people of Nineveh and we read, “So, Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh.” But what we must remember is that this was the second time God called Jonah.
The first time Jonah heard God’s call, he resisted and fled by boat in the opposite direction. Nineveh was an evil city as we hear in call of Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” No wonder Jonah was hesitant. When Jonah resisted that first call, God caused a storm that terrified the sailors on the boat Jonah fled on. Wanting to appease God, they threw Jonah into the sea where he was swallowed by a large fish and, after three days, the fish spat him out on the shore near Nineveh. There was no escaping God’s call.
Now Jonah responds to God’s call to destroy the city. If Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed, then why didn’t he go the first time to Nineveh when God sent him? Hearing Jonah’s message, the king, and then all the people and animals repented. As a result of their repentance, God spared them. Jonah became very upset by God’s mercy towards his enemies and by this we discover why Jonah fled from God’s first call. Not because he was frightened of Nineveh’s evil, but because of God’s mercy that Jonah feared God would show them. He tells God, “I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in mercy, and abounding in love” (4:2).
That’s our God! Jonah knew his God well and realized that God used him as an instrument of forgiveness and mercy rather than destruction. Jonah went to great lengths to resist God’s first call and then expressed frustration with God when the Ninevites heard Jonah’s preaching and repented. What I find interesting in Jonah’s call is that he didn’t want to be God’s voice of forgiveness, but God used him anyway. Maybe, in Jonah, we might see a reflection of ourselves. Maybe there is someone we know who needs to hear a word from God but we don’t want to do it. We can tend to classify certain individuals, or types of people, as outside God’s loving embrace. We can’t imagine God loving them with their ungodly ways. What have they done to deserve God’s mercy? Nothing, but God offers it to them anyway. If we ever begin to think that way, let us remember what St Paul says about us: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) For some reason that we may not know – that only God knows why – we might be the very ones God needs to reach out to a person.
Jonah’s story shows to what lengths God will go to welcome home the sinner and outsider. We need to put aside our negative feelings for them and make the journey Jonah did to be God’s messengers of peace to them. The message of Jonah is a message of God’s true work coming through repentance. First of all, there is the repentance of Jonah.
Even though Jonah disobeyed God and went in the opposite direction – God chased him down. It’s interesting that the opening of the book of Jonah says that Jonah arose to flee from the presence of the Lord. While he might have fled from God’s presence, God’s presence never flees from us as Jesus promised – “I am with you always.” That’s the first message we take from Jonah. That even when we go in the complete opposite direction to God’s will for us – God is there on our heels working to turn us back to him through repentance. You cannot go too far away from God that he is not there with you, a good thing to remember when we are concerned about others who have seemingly departed from God’s presence.
The 2nd lesson we learn from Jonah is from Nineveh. We learn that no one is ‘unsaveable’. The Ninevites were evil personified. They were Assyrians and responsible for great atrocities to God’s people. Nineveh today is known as Mosul – it used to be the headquarters of Islamic State when they were causing so much death and destruction around the world through terrorism. Why would God want to help them? To believe that God would want them to repent and be saved would be repugnant to so many people today.
Just read the Letters to the Editor today about what people want to happen to those who drive their cars into innocent pedestrians – to Africans gangs causing so much terror in our suburbs – to those who harm children – to suggest that God wants us to go to them and show mercy and to save their souls would have a far greater outcry than that of Jonah.
But that is the nature of God – merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding with unfailing love (Jonah 4:2). Unlike Jonah, who responded to God’s call reluctantly, the first disciples accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him immediately. Andrew, Peter, James and John left their nets and followed him immediately. Before he invites his new followers, Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” That is how we too should respond when God calls – immediately.
Why? St Paul tells us why: He says – the appointed time has grown short; Even though it’s been around 2,000 years since Jesus promised to return – each day we put off what God has called us to do is one less day we have available. And none of us know just how many days a person has left to hear the message of God for their salvation. The 3rd repentance is probably the most difficult to understand. The bible reading says that God also repented from the destruction he was going to send: God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. In John 3:17 we hear what the mission of God is: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Sometimes we believe that that mission is only to us, that the call to repentance is only for us to keep our relationship going with God. But through Jonah, God teaches us that his concern is for the entire world including the ungodly that we would rather see destroyed than saved. In fact St Paul was so anguished about the state of his people who were unbelievers, that he was happy to forgo his own salvation if it meant they could be saved. In Romans 9 he said: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people.” What Paul is exampling here is the love of God the Father who allowed his own Son to die so that we would not perish in eternal death.
That should be our motivation also. If we don’t care what happens to someone’s eternal salvation, then we really haven’t understood God’s mission to the world. God was not prepared to have anyone perish so he allowed his own Son to be sacrificed. Despite Nineveh’s wickedness, God was prepared to change his mind in destroying them and forgave their wickedness when they repented. Do we have the same heart as God or do we still show the same lack of care for fellow human beings? Jonah was more concerned about a shrub he was sleeping under that died than the thousands who were going to perish in Nineveh without God’s mercy. The Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” We might disagree with people’s way of life. We might abhor the behaviour of certain people or groups of people. We may have been personally affected by a person’s actions. But regardless of our personal experience, our call from God is to forgive and help them to know God’s forgiveness. And the best way for a person to know God’s forgiveness is by living lives of forgiveness ourselves. And that’s where Jonah went wrong. He didn’t want forgiveness for Nineveh but God did. And the amazing thing about God is that he still used Jonah because he was just a concerned about Jonah’s spiritual welfare.
God’s love never gives up on anyone, no matter how evil or how ungodly they are. He is always working to bring repentance so he can bring them eternal life, as St Peter says: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
May God grant you the same patience and desire for all people.