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. His thinking was that 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:

O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.

This description of Yahweh is one which God himself gave to Moses (see 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.

Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

To Jonah, God’s mercy to the Ninevites means an end to Israel’s favoured standing. 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:

Is it right for you to be angry?

Jonah is angry because God has not treated the Ninevites the way he 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.

Jonah’s shelter does not seem to have been very effective because God then ordains that a castor-oil plant should grow up over him to give shade for his head and soothe his bad humour. 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 does not see the 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 “appoints” a worm to attack the tree which causes it to wither. On top of that, Yahweh further “prepares” a scorching east wind to blow in from the desert. Without shelter and under the blazing sun, Jonah feels absolutely miserable:

It is better for me to die than to live.

God then quietly asks Jonah:

Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies:

Yes, angry enough to die.

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:

…about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many 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 do not know their right hand from their left”. The story thus prepares the way for the Gospel: God is Love (see 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.

Comments Off on Wednesday of Week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Printed from LivingSpace - part of Sacred Space
Copyright © 2024 Sacred Space :: :: All rights reserved.