By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” What might happen if a latter-day Jonah were to stroll down Flatbush Avenue shouting something like that about Brooklyn? I imagine that such a messenger wouldn’t be as persuasive as Jonah was after just one day’s walk through the streets of Nineveh. Sunday’s first reading tells us that, as a result of the prophet’s proclamation, “when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” That’s impressive!
It is even more remarkable when we step back for some context. Jonah was a notoriously uncooperative prophet. When God commanded, “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me,” Jonah fled in the opposite direction, going to Joppa and boarding a Tarshish-bound ship instead of going toward Nineveh. His frustrated escape efforts ended famously with the prophet tossed overboard and spending three days and three nights in the belly of a big fish. It’s okay to laugh at this: the inspired author intended this part of the story to be comical, but effectively making the point that nothing gets in the way of God’s will!
Why didn’t Jonah want to go along with what God had in store? To us, Nineveh might be just an obscure name from long ago and far away. To Jonah, Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the superpower that was Israel’s potent military foe, its armies responsible for the destruction of Samaria in 722 BC. King Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh displayed massive, sculpted reliefs of the victorious Assyrian military siege of the Judean city of Lachish in 701 BC.
These images spare none of the gory details of how the defenders of the city were treated by the king’s soldiers and of how the Judean prisoners were led away into captivity. With that painful and violent history on his mind, it is no surprise that Jonah was reluctant to make his way to the enemy capital armed only with a message of warning from Israel’s God!
When the prophet finally did make his way to Nineveh, he was no more than a day’s walk through the city before God’s word conquered the hearts and souls of the people so that they repented. So, “when God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” Far from feeling satisfied at the astonishing success of his prophetic preaching, “this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.” In his anger, he complained, “O Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish.
I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment.” Surprisingly, the prophet wanted to fail, hoping that his words of impending disaster would not soften the sinful hearts of the people of Nineveh and wishing instead that God would destroy the enemy city! God answers by confronting Jonah, “Are you right to be angry?” and explaining, “should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?”
That is how the book of Jonah ends, with no indication of whether or not the successful prophet repented of his vengeful attitude. For us, there is much to ponder here! In the words of the familiar hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty… But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.” The boundless mercy of God knows no limits and respects no borders!
Readings for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.