Jonah is one of the most attractive characters in the Bible. The most beautiful surprise in the book of Jonah is that the most unlikely candidate for holiness, the ever-hated Assyrians, turn to God. The same Assyrians who had destroyed the ten northern tribes of the Hebrews (2 Kgs 17) and destroyed Judah (2 Kgs 19). Even though these people were among the cruelest in biblical history, Jonah managed to bring them to repentance.
When Jonah is called by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, he cannot believe that God could show mercy to such wicked pagans who had been long-time enemies of Israel. He doesn’t want to go because he doesn’t want to see God show mercy on them.
So, instead of following God’s call to go east, Jonah disobeys and takes a ship west - the opposite direction. When a massive storm threatens to sink the ship and all on board, the crew realizes that Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of all their troubles. They throw him overboard, where he is swallowed by a giant fish. Even the fish does not particularly enjoy the presence of Jonah in its belly and coughs him up on the shore after three days.
Finding himself alive, Jonah realizes that God means business and reluctantly preaches to the people of Nineveh, relaying God’s threat of destruction if the people do not change their ways within 40 days. The 40 days remind us of the 40 days of rain God sent to punish a wicked world during the flood, the 40 years when the Israelites wandered in the desert, the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, and our 40 days of Lent.
Jonah is surprised and angry when his enemies, the Ninevites, respond immediately to his call for penance. From the greatest to the least, the citizens of Nineveh begin to fast and wear penitential sackcloth. Even the king wore sackcloth and sat in ashes. Food was not to be given to animals, even domestic animals. This extreme measure expressed the urgency of the Ninevites in seeking God’s mercy to forgive their sins. Even then, forgiveness seemed too much to hope for.
In today’s gospel, Jesus compares his experience to Jonah’s when he says, “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jonah and Jesus were both called by God to preach. They were both buried for three days and reappeared alive. However, the similarities end here. While Jonah tried to escape from God, Jesus cooperated with Him. While Jonah did not want to see Israel’s enemies repenting, Jesus wants nothing more than for the people hearing him to repent. Jonah’s call was short: forty more days or else; Jesus gives us a lifetime to repent and get ourselves in shape.
As we approach Lent, let us note that God forgave the Ninevites, who were the most unlikely candidates for forgiveness, when he saw that they had turned from their evil ways. And let us repent, both for the wrongs we have done and for the good we have failed to do and reflect on how our lives can be more in line with the Gospel call.
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