All is not always what it seems. A look at the first reading this Sunday from the book of Jonah would seem to suggest that the prophet Jonah is an intrepid messenger of God, readily obedient to God’s command that he walk into the capital city of one of Israel’s biggest enemies and call them to repentance. But in fact as we read all of the book of Jonah, we discover that this is far from the case.
To begin with, this passage in our first reading is not the first time God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance to the people there. Right at the beginning of the book, we read that Jonah is called to do this, but initially balks at God’s command and runs away from it. It takes God working through a storm at sea, a near ship-wreck, Jonah being thrown into the sea by the terrorized sailors and a large fish (note: not a whale!) who swallows Jonah, to bring the prophet to the point we reach in our first reading this Sunday . Only then, when Jonah realizes that resistance to God’s will is futile, does he reluctantly do what he is told and goes to Nineveh, where, incredibly, his message is received with overwhelming belief and repentance, leading to God rescinding his decision to destroy the city.
You would think that Jonah would be overwhelmingly delighted that his mission has been so successful. But again, this is far from the case. In the last chapter of the book, we learn that the reason for Jonah fleeing from God, was not because he was afraid to carry it out, but because he did not want to carry it out. He knew that, if he was successful and Nineveh did in fact repent, that God would forgive them. Because God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and always ready to relent” as countless references in the Old Testament point out. And Jonah simply does not want Nineveh to be saved. He wants them destroyed because they are Israel’s enemy and he thinks they should be God’s enemy as well.
The book of Jonah is thus a satire, a caricature on a particular tendency within the nation of Israel to a certain xenophobia, a judgement and contempt on other nations who do not have the same kind of covenant relationship as they enjoy with God, and so are inferior to them. That God may have a heart for the pagans just does not sit well with this kind of mindset. Jesus will run into it as well in his ministry (see for example Luke 4: 18 ff) as will the early church as they reach out beyond the borders of Israel to preach salvation to the pagans (cf Acts 13 ). To be honest, even amongst Christians, it is possible to find those who have no love for non-Christians and who are only too ready to consign them to hell because they do not have an explicit faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is also, sadly, not unusual to come across Catholics who feel the same way towards non- Catholic Christians. To such as those, the book of Jonah makes salutary reading.