BEFORE THE CROSS | Jonah’s lessons for Israel remain important to us today

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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We read the book of the prophet Jonah this week. Most of us remember that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. But three elements of the book help us to understand its message more deeply.

First, is the context of the book. Jonah is sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria — one of the great historical enemies of Israel. That Jonah was sent there means that Yahweh isn't only the God of Israel, He's the God of every nation and cares for all His people. That, by itself, would have been a wake-up call to anyone in Israel who believed that God only loved the chosen people.

Second, it's important to understand that the person who most needs repentance in the book is Jonah himself. Jonah is supposed to go to the heart of a foreign nation to draw them to God. But he runs away from his prophetic task. In this way Jonah stands for any refusal of Israel to embrace its prophetic mission to the nations. Israel, like Jonah, needed to repent of this failure.

When God gives Jonah a second chance, he accepts his mission and goes to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh do better than Jonah did: from greatest to least they repent immediately! This, too, is a lesson to Israel, one that Jesus repeats in the Gospels: tax collectors and prostitutes and foreigners are entering the kingdom before the chosen people because they repent when they hear God's message.

The next step is interesting: Jonah gets angry! Nineveh repents, preventing their destruction by God. But Jonah doesn't want to see them repent and receive mercy. He would rather see them destroyed. Here, too, Jonah represents a certain attitude in Israel that needed correcting.

Third and finally, we apply the book to our own spiritual life. What happens when you run away from God? In Jonah's case the consequences are played out physically: A storm envelops him, he's thrown into the sea, he's swallowed by a whale. St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches that the same thing is true spiritually: When we turn away from the Lord, we enter into the storminess of spiritual desolation.

What happens when you repent and turn back toward God? Again, in Jonah's case, the consequences are spelled out physically: The storm ends. Again, St. Ignatius teaches that the same is true spiritually: When we turn toward the Lord, the calm of spiritual consolation returns to us.

The book of Jonah is four short chapters. Give it a read; it was full of lessons for Israel when it was written, and it's full of lessons for us today. 

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