Wednesday of Week 1 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-10

Jonah, probably not a historical figure, is nevertheless one of the most attractive characters in the Bible. Although he is listed among the Minor Prophets, his book is more a cautionary tale than prophecy in the strict sense. There is an underlying humour through the whole book of Jonah which one does not often find in the Old Testament. The book also indicates a softening of attitudes by the Jews towards Gentiles. They were not totally beyond God’s compassion and mercy.

Jonah is asked by God to go east to preach to the pagan people of Niniveh, the capital city of Assyriah, described as being so big that it took three days to walk across it. Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about 13 km in circumference, or a larger area comprising a four-city complex (‘Greater Niniveh’) which would have been about 100 km in circumference. However, we are not dealing with a historical document and the idea is simply to say that it was a huge city with a lot of people – all unbelievers in the true God.

However, we see in Chapter 1, instead of doing what God tells him, Jonah takes a ship and goes west – in the opposite direction. He cannot believe that God could show mercy to such wicked pagans. After a huge storm threatens to sink the ship and all on board, the crew become aware that Jonah, in disobeying a mission from his God, is the cause of all their trouble. So he is unceremoniously dumped overboard where he is promptly swallowed by a huge fish (traditionally, a whale). Even the whale does not particularly enjoy the presence of Jonah and, after three days, coughs him up on the shore (see chap 2).

In our reading today, Jonah finally accepts the message that God means business and he reluctantly proceeds to go and preach to the people of Niniveh, a city synonymous with paganism and idolatry. He threatens the city with destruction if the people do not change their ways:

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

The 40 days is reminiscent of the Flood, God’s punishment on a wicked world, which lasted 40 days, or of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. The Hebrew expression for ‘overthrown’ is also an echo of the ‘overthrowing’ of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by a special act of God.

To Jonah’s great surprise there is an immediate response to his call for penance:

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions this unexpected conversion and compares it with those Jews who refuse to believe in him.

From the greatest to the least, the citizens of Niniveh begin to fast and wear penitential sackcloth. Even the king:

…rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

Even animals were not to be given food. Inclusion of the domestic animals was unusual, but expressed the urgency with which the Ninevites sought God’s mercy. Even then, forgiveness seemed too much to hope for:

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

The result was that God did indeed look kindly on their efforts to change their ways and relented. The threatened punishment for their wickedness was not inflicted. Clearly, repentant Gentiles were also the object of God’s love and forgiveness.

The thrust of this story seems to be that, contrary to traditional Jewish belief (of which Jonah himself was an example), “wicked” Gentiles could respond to God’s call and change their ways. This is an anticipation of what would happen in the early Church, where the first Jewish Christians gradually came to realise that the Gospel call was extended to people everywhere.

For us, at this time of Lent, it is a reminder of our need to repent, both in the sense of being truly sorry for all the wrong we have done and the good we have failed to do, and to reflect on how our lives can be brought more in line with the call of the Gospel. It is also a time to reflect on our attitudes to non-Catholics and non-Christians or ex-Christians. Jesus himself says that we will be surprised at the number and kinds of people who will enter into his Kingdom. Let us make sure that we will be among them. Lent is a time to make the right preparations.

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