20 February. Wednesday in the First Week of Lent
Jonah 3:1ff. Jonah’s preaching bears unintended fruit, and God spares the city from punishment.
Lk 11:29ff. The mysterious sign of Jonah, who returns from the dead after three days.
First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. He began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Gospel: Luke 11:29-32
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
Learning from Jonah
The inspired author of Jonah knew his people’s story very well. He weaves into his narrative phrases, ideas and allusions from many other parts of the Sacred Scripture or from Israel’s sacred tradition. The words of the Assyrian king, “Who knows God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath,” are drawn from earlier biblical texts like the penitential prayer in Joel 2:14. The inspired author, then, had meditated so long on his Bible, that his own preaching and writing became a filigree or tapestry of passages from the Bible.
Because he knew his religion so very well, that he could think and dream only in its language, the author of Jonah almost exploded with exasperation and frustration. Why do those people – his own – with such a rich heritage, refuse to reform their ways and respond to God with faith and justice, with prayer and hope? Look, says this writer, the pagans, even the worst of them, the ruthless and ever hated Assyrians, are more spontaneously good than my own people! Jonah prepares us for the most wonderful of surprises, the extraordinary and unsuspected goodness of strangers.
The message of today’s prophecy can be summed up in that one word, hope! We must never lose hope in others and in ourselves, in world affairs, in the national political scene. So surely – at the preaching of Jonah, and we have someone far greater than Jonah – conversions and transformations can take place. Not just an isolated individual, but families, neighbourhoods and countries – the entire city of Nineveh – can believe in God, proclaim a fast, pray for forgiveness, and become a model of goodness for all the rest of us pseudo-saints! Hope can and will come from the least suspected quarters, whether in secret corners of our own hearts or of others.
Jonah announces the depths of hidden goodness in all of us and in our entire world. He instructs us in the power and necessity of decisions. The king of Nineveh at once “rose from his throne . . . and sat in the ashes.” Heonah offers us a glimpse, baffling and enticing, into the heart of God. The Bible states that when God saw the repentance of Nineveh, then he himself “repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” If God then can humbly change his mind, how can we remain rigidly self-righteous and condemnatory of others!