Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant; his struggle with sin is not hidden. We are currently reading Jonah’s story in daily Mass. In the story we see a portrait of sin and of God’s love for sinners. Psalm 139 says, beautifully,
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).
Let’s examine the story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.
I. Defiance - This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.
To defy means to resist what one is told to do, openly and boldly. Defiance also indicates a lack of faith because it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) and “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving and untrusting.
His scoffing and defiance likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh is the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking that he can outrun God.
II. Distance - He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.
Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline of modern-day Spain. In order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah runs some 1500 miles away. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.
Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way in order to be able to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive—but many seem quite willing to pay the price.
The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. Like Jonah, though, many line up to pay the price and take the long, painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.
How much of our trouble comes from our sin? The great majority of it. So much suffering, so much expense, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (if you’ll pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.
III. Disturbance - The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.
Jonah’s defiance sends him and others headlong into a storm that grows ever deeper. The teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. As our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces ever more powerful.
Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important lesson: in our sin, our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.
The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses (by throwing their cargo overboard) on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.
Similarly, in our own culture today a good deal of pain and loss results from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, many families have been torn apart. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that come from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who suffer the most pain and injustice as a result of so much bad adult behavior.
To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, and lack of charity. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us but others around us as well.
No one is merely an individual; we are also members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.
Jonah is a danger and a cause of grief to others around him. So, too, are we when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.
IV. Delirium - Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.
While all these storms (which he caused) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a moral sleep, talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” Yet all the while the storm winds buffet and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain locked in self-deception and rationalizations, ignoring the damage they are inflicting upon others.
Many people today talk about “victimless sins,” actions that supposedly don’t hurt anyone. Those who are morally alert do not say such things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral slumber, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to ramble on about their right to do as they please.
V. Dressing Down - The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?” They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.
In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those whom he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!
First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions. Stop with your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on!
Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours—but call on the Lord!
This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up and look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us. Turn back to God lest we all perish.
VI. Despair - They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”
Jonah is now beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Somewhat like Judas, Jonah and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.
In effect, Jonah says to them, “Kill me. I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.
VII. Dignity - still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.
Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as the first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, returning crime for crime, sin for sin.
But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to correct with love.
It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of every person—even great sinners—and strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.
VIII. Deliverance - Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.
In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. Somehow, they sense His just verdict yet they fear their own judgment and ask for His mercy.
In many American courtrooms, upon the pronouncement of a death sentence, the judge says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Even in the sad situation in which we can do little but prevent people from ever harming others, we ought to appreciate their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.
God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa where it all began.
IX. Determination - Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).
Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He is the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”
God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah will go finally to Nineveh and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). Hmm, now why does this description seem so familiar?
Here is a video of a performance of the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the oratorio “Jonas,” by Giacomo Carissimi. It is a luscious, heartfelt piece depicting the repentance of the Ninevites. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it understood its significance for them, too.