When considering the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, we generally divide them up into the Torah or Pentateuch, the History Books, the Prophets, and the Wisdom Literature. Today we hear from one of the prophets, but this prophet is decidedly different than all the other prophets represented in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah stands alone as the only prophet to succeed in his mission, as the only prophet to survive his mission, and as the only prophet who was sent to people other than the Israelites.
Jonah succeeds in his mission after his initial attempts to escape the Word of God. After he is spewed up onto the shore, he proceeds to the city of Nineveh where he begins to preach repentance. Nineveh was an avowed enemy of Israel. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jonah tries to escape God's will, nor should it come as a surprise that he is hoping that the people will not listen to his message. In rather dramatic fashion, the entire city not only hears the message but takes it to heart. As a consequence, the city is spared God's wrath.
All of the other prophets are killed by the Israelites. Though the Scriptures do not detail the particulars of all of their deaths, we are apprised of the fact that people do not want to hear the message that is being preached. I daresay that the message of repentance still falls on many a deaf ear. Jonah, however, is not killed.
Finally, the prophets are sent to the Israelites to call them back to the observance of the Sinai Covenant. However, Nineveh is a pagan city and does not worship the God of Israel. Consequently, the repentance that is preached in this city is a matter of turning away from sin in general. Even the king of Nineveh repents and orders that the livestock should share in the acts of penance.
Prophetic voices are never easy to bear. None of us likes to be reminded of our shortcomings. We know them all too well and would rather they remain in the corners and shadows rather than be examined under the bright lights of the prophetic words of those who are sent to prick our consciences.
On Friday last, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, we once again celebrated the life of a man whose preaching changed his world. The day was filled with news of our Holy Father Francis who traveled to the city to observe his patronal feast. The pope visited with modern day "lepers," with married couples, with the youth, and with the clergy of the city. He visited the Basilica of St. Francis with its frescoes detailing Francis' life of penance. He prayed before the tomb of St. Francis deep underneath the basilica. He visited the Basilica of St. Clare of Assisi where the crucifix which Francis heard speaking to him now hangs. He also visited the relic of St. Clare's body in the crypt of that church. He visited the Church of St. Rufinus (San Rufino), the church in which St. Francis was baptized and called all of us back to the observance of our baptismal promises. The echoes of his voice and the many talks he gave on Friday are growing quiet. Let us hope that like the prophet Jonah, Pope Francis will also be successful in touching the hearts of those who hear his voice.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator