Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 24: 4-5ab, 6, 7bc, 8-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1: 14-20

January 22, 2006

Today’s liturgy, with its insistence on repentance, is almost Lenten in tone. The gospel, in fact, contains the very words uttered by the priest at the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). In the first reading, we are given an account of the prophet Jonah’s mission to the city of Nineveh.

The book of Jonah is unique among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Unlike the other prophetic books of the Bible, it is not a series of oracles addressed to Israel and to the neighbouring foreign nations. The book of Jonah is, rather, a dramatic account of the struggles and adventures of a reluctant prophet, a kind of play in three acts. In the first act, Jonah seeks to escape God’s call. In the second, Jonah, finding that his prophetic vocation is inescapable, resigns himself to it, goes to Nineveh, and preaches the message of repentance given him by God. In the third act, we see Jonah alone, in conversation with God. In the last line of the book, God reveals to Jonah his all-embracing compassion. Throughout it all, Jonah’s personality is complicated and quirky. God is revealed to be merciful in all his designs, and full of pity for every creature in his universe.

Abruptly, the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and upsets his life. Jonah is extremely unwilling to risk his life on the Word of the Lord. He has no desire to be a prophet. He wishes that God would leave him alone. He attempts to run away to sea, to flee from the face of the Lord (Jon 1:3). Every attempt to flee from the presence of God is, of course, futile. We are reminded of the prayer of the psalmist: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (Ps 139:7-10).

Jonah, seeking to get away from God, buys a ticket to Tarshish, and his ship sets sail. God, however, is not deterred; he holds to his choice of Jonah. God is as determined to pursue Jonah as Jonah is determined to flee from the face of God. “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up” (Jon 1:4).

The sailors of the story are God-fearing men. They attribute the mighty tempest to the presence on their ship of someone not at peace with God. By casting lots, they identify Jonah as the cause of their ill fortune. Jonah confesses to them that he was using their ship to flee from the presence of the Lord. The storm grows more and more violent. In a desperate attempt to appease the anger of God and obtain the calming of the sea, Jonah asks to be cast into the raging waves. Reluctantly, the sailors agree to his proposal. As soon as Jonah disappears overboard into the water, “the sea ceased from its raging” (Jon 1:15).

Still, the Lord will not allow Jonah to escape his mission. “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jon 1:17). When the great fish spews Jonah out onto dry land, the Word of the Lord is waiting for him, insistent, persistent, relentless. Jonah finally resigns himself to obeying the Word of the Lord and undertakes his mission to Nineveh. The Ninivites are amazing in their response to Jonah’s message. “They believe God, proclaim a fast, put on sackcloth” (Jon 3:5), and repent. God, who had decided to destroy Nineveh for its wickedness, now repents of his plan. Nineveh is spared.

Now, one would think that Jonah might have found some happiness in the outcome of his mission. Instead, he becomes annoyed with God’s way of doing things. “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jon 4:1). Jonah had hoped to see the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah is the kind of person who enjoys seeing people get what he believes they have coming to them. Cranky and depressed, he sits outside the city, waiting to see what will happen.

In a single day, God causes a plant to grow near him, covering him with its welcome shade. Then, God appoints a worm to attack the plant, and, in a single night, the plant withers and dies. Jonah is outraged by the demise of the shade-giving plant. The sun beats down hard on Jonah’s head. Jonah sinks deeper into the deepest depression over the worm-eaten plant, over his life, over a God who is disconcerting and inscrutable. Then, God speaks to his reluctant prophet, revealing that if Jonah feels pity for a plant that sprouts up and dies in a day and in a night, it is only right that God should feel pity for Nineveh, and for all its inhabitants. The book of Jonah ends with this wonderful revelation of a God who loves even the smallest of his creatures, of a gracious God, ever ready to show pity, and to forgive.

In this Holy Mass, the Word of the Lord comes to us just as insistently, just as powerfully, just as inexorably, as it came to Jonah, just as it came to Simon and Andrew, James and John, in today’s holy gospel. There are two responses possible. Like Jonah, we can buy a ticket to Tarshish or, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, we can leave nets, boats, father, and hired help behind to follow Jesus (Mk 1:18-20). We can dare to make our own the words of today’s responsorial psalm, “Make me to know thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me” (Ps 24:4-5a).

God makes use of everything in trying to reach us, engages all of creation to teach us . With Jonah, it was the sailors, the sea, the wind, the tempest, the fish, the plant, and even the worm. With us, it is the persons, things, and events that surround us, the chance meetings, and unexpected delays, disappointments, and opportunities. God speaks to even through crushing humiliation and bitter trial and out of such things causes a song of thanksgiving to rise. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. . . . Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee forever” (Ps 29:5, 11-12).

If we are willing to risk the encounter with God, willing to follow Jesus Christ, we can stay to continue this celebration of the Great Thanksgiving. If we remain here, and go from the hearing of the Word to the breaking of the Bread (Ac 3:42), we shall discover in a way that infinitely surpasses the experience of Jonah, a God who is full of pity, all-embracing in his compassion, a God who comes close to us in Jesus Christ, a God who, for our sakes, makes use of simple gifts: Bread that is broken, and a Chalice outpoured. In the eating of that Bread, the sacred Body of Christ, in the drinking of the holy chalice of his Blood, there is the taste of mercy, a mercy extended to all, a mercy denied none, a mercy that makes all things new (Rev 21:5).