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The Sign of Jonah

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

We hear a short excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Jonah today as well as a reference to Jonah in the Gospel of St. Luke. While this book of the Hebrew Scriptures is nestled among the other "minor" prophets, there is some argument for considering the story as something other than a prophetic book. Jonah is seen by some as a prefigurement or a proleptic story about Jesus who will lie in the bowels of the earth for three days just as Jonah lay in the bowels of the whale for three days. However, I find it difficult to liken the obedient Jesus to the disobedient Jonah.

Jonah's preaching is rather violent. He spares no punches in denouncing the Ninevites for their immoral behavior. While he does call them to repentance, he spends more time speaking of the punishment that God is about to visit upon this city. One can almost hear the gloating tone in his voice as one reads his words. "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." (Jonah 3:4c) This gloating tone is reinforced by the fact that when the Ninevites repent and God relents, Jonah is angry despite the fact that Israel has long understood that their God is merciful. He blusters: I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. (Jonah 4:2b) He uses God's mercy as an excuse for his own disobedience in the first two chapters of the story, disobedience that resulted in his imprisonment in the belly of the whale.

When Jesus enters upon the scene, the people of Israel have yet to learn the story. The Jewish authorities challenge Jesus for his concern for the lost sheep of Israel. A little later in the Gospel, Jesus will tell us three parables of God's forgiveness, all of them in response to the charge that Jesus eats with sinners. Unfortunately, we find ourselves not far removed from that experience today. There is no sport so heartily embraced than railing against the sins of others despite the fact that the greatest saints of the Church were those who considered themselves the most abject of sinners. Somehow this trait of holy people is not one we emulate very well.

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