Wednesday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Jonah 4:1-11

After having single-handedly (with some help from the Lord, of course) converted a city of 120,000 people from the king downwards, one would have thought that Jonah would have been filled with a wonderful sense of achievement. At best, he would have thanked and praised God for his wonderful works; at the least, he would have been patting himself on the back for being such an effective prophet.

Instead, we find him in a foul humour and very angry. He is angry that God could have compassion on a longstanding enemy of Israel, one who had caused great suffering to God’s people. God’s goodness should be shown only to Israelites, not to Gentiles and certainly not to Assyrians.

His self-righteous world has been turned upside down. As a devout Hebrew, one of God’s chosen and a prophet to boot, he has regarded all unbelieving Gentiles as deserving only of God’s fiercest punishments. That was why he did not want to have anything to do with them; that was why he wanted to flee as far from them as he could get.

He is very disappointed in his God but attributes it to God’s basic weakness. “Please, Yahweh, isn’t this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country? That is why I first tried to flee to Tarshish, since I knew you were a tender, compassionate God, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, who relents about inflicting disaster.” This description of Yahweh is one which God himself gave to Moses (Exod 34:6-7) at Sinai and becomes a formula repeated more than once in the Old Testament.  God’s gentle patience is in strong contrast to Jonah’s anger.

“So now, Yahweh, please take my life, for I might as well be dead as go on living.” To Jonah, God’s mercy to the Ninevites means an end to Israel’s favoured standing with him. Jonah shortly before has rejoiced in his deliverance from death in the sea, but now that the pagan and sinful Nineveh lives, in anger and frustration he prefers to die. But Yahweh asks, “Are you right to be angry?” He is angry because God has not treated the Ninevites the way Jonah thinks they deserve.

Jonah then leaves the city and sits down to the east of the city where he makes a shelter for himself. He wants to see what is going to happen to the city. He expects and hopes that a terrible destruction is going to come down on it. After all, at the beginning of the story God had said how angry he was with the Ninevites.

His shelter does not seem to have been very effective because Yahweh God then ordains that a castor-oil plant should grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head and soothe his bad humour. This is the first of three occasions in the paragraph where something happens because Yahweh “ordains” it.

Jonah is delighted with the shelter the castor-oil plant provides. A castor oil plant is a shrub growing over 4 metres high with large, shady leaves. God graciously increases the comfort of his stubbornly defiant prophet. Jonah sees no contradiction between God being kind to him, when he disobeys Yahweh, and his being kind to the Ninevites who have promised to give up their sinful ways and disobedience.

But, just when Jonah is enjoying the shade of the tree, God “ordains” that it should be attacked by a worm which causes the tree to wither. On top of that, Yahweh further “ordains” that there should be a scorching east wind blowing in from the desert. Without shelter and under the blazing sun, Jonah feels absolutely miserable: “I might as well be dead as to go on living.”

God then quietly asks Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah replies, “I have every right to be angry, mortally angry!” But it is now time for Jonah to learn his lesson. The message is clear. Everything is God’s doing. He is the ultimate Lord. He gives and he takes away. And he gives and takes to whomever he will – Jew or Gentile.

Jonah has got all worked up over a tree which, without any effort on his part, appeared overnight and just as quickly disappeared. Why should Yahweh, then, not be concerned for Nineveh, a city of 120,000 people, “who cannot tell their right hand from their left”, not to mention the animals.

Jonah can only see wilfully wicked people but Yahweh sees a people, who, like small children, need a father’s gentle compassion to point them in the right direction.

The message of the story is clear. It says that God’s compassion reaches out to every single person. Jonah, representing a certain class of Israelite, whom we see later in the Gospel, could not extend God’s compassion to the Gentile. Jonah and his countrymen traditionally rejoiced in God’s special mercies to Israel but wished only his wrath on their enemies. God here rebukes such hardness and proclaims his own graciousness.

In the story, God takes compassion on Jonah, when he is thrown into the stormy sea, on Nineveh which repented of its sin and even on the prophet in his moment of self-pity. At the end, Yahweh explains with gentle irony how his solicitude extends even to the animals – how much more then to men, women and children, “who cannot tell their right hand from their left”. The story thus prepares the way for the Gospel: God IS Love (cf. 1 John 4).

And this is the lesson of the whole book. It is a lesson in tolerance. It is a lesson that others besides God’s chosen people can be forgiven their sin, that they can repent of their sin, that they can be open to the influence of God and do good things.

In this book we are very close to the spirit of the New Testament where Jesus comes to save and not to condemn. The first Christians were all Jews and it came as something of a surprise to them that Gentiles could receive and respond to the Spirit of Jesus just as well as they could.

Jonah is a book attacking narrow-minded bigotry and sectarianism. As such its message is still all too relevant in a world where cynics say that the world would be better off without religions which are the source of so much suffering, violence and divisiveness. Let us remove all bigotry and intolerance from our Christian lives. Let us rejoice to see the Spirit working in other people and be happy to work with them to bring about the Kingdom.

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