“To Go, or Not to Go” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, January 21, 2024

On the surface, our first reading today, presents for us, in the person of Jonah, a model of readiness and availability to carrying out God’s will. Jonah seems to spring to the task of obeying God and preaching repentance to the city of Nineveh. Those who know the real story of Jonah know the reality is somewhat different. By the way, if you have never read the book of Jonah, you should. It is tucked away in the Old Testament and only runs four chapters, so it doesn’t take long, and it is an entertaining story.

To begin with, the editors of our first reading, have left out a very important detail. If you go to your Bible and look out the third chapter of the book of Jonah, from which this reading is taken, you will see that it reads: “the word of the Lord came to Jonah, a second time. This is not actually the first time that God has tried to get Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. But when God first commanded Jonah to do this, Jonah actually ran away from God to avoid doing the task. (Yes, the book says that he boarded a ship for Tarshish, present-day Spain, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3).)

 And why did Jonah run away? 

Was he scared of what the people of Nineveh might do to him if he goes and rebukes them for their wickedness? Or is he afraid he will fail the task? Not a bit of it. Jonah runs away because he doesn’t want to do what God asks of him, not because he is afraid that he will fail, but because he is afraid, he might succeed! Yes, you heard right. Let me explain. In the Old Testament, we read that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which lies north of Israel, and is Israel’s great enemy. Assyria was, for a time, the most powerful nation in the Middle East. and in fact, in 722 B.C., they swept through the north of Israel, defeated its army, ravaged the people and took most of them off to Assyria. Israel, therefore, really hated Assyria, and its capital city, Nineveh. Jonah, as a member of Israel, shared that hatred, and the last thing he wanted was for them to repent at his preaching and be saved from destruction by God for their wickedness. Think of the hatred between Israel and Hamas, and how each has vowed to annihilate the other. Could you imagine God sending an emissary from Israel into Gaza, in order to preach repentance to Hamas, so they could be saved from God’s wrath? Exactly. The thought is virtually impossible. Yet, that is what God wants Jonah to do.

And why does God send Jonah to do this? 

Because he loves the people of Nineveh, and He wants them to be saved! He doesn’t hate them, he loves them. In fact, after the end of this first reading, when the people of Nineveh have repented and been saved from God’s destruction, we are shown Jonah actually sulking – sulking because he was successful in his preaching. He actually complains to God: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4: 2-3). Jonah is saying to God, the great God of the universe: “I knew you were so soft-hearted that you were likely to forgive these accursed people. That is why I ran away from you. I didn’t want the assignment you gave me, because I didn’t want to see our enemy saved.” Jonah even goes so far as to beg God to take his life from him, “for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). Jonah wants to die because he feels he has let down his country. He represents the type of blinkered, unforgiving patriot that hates any other nation, especially those who are sworn enemies, and does not believe God should forgive them.

But God sees it differently. 

He actually tells Jonah he feels sorry for the people of Nineveh, who, in their wickedness and blindness to their fault, are moving relentlessly towards self-destruction. (4:11). Think of the wickedest person in history you know: Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Hamas? Don’t you think they deserve Hell? How do you respond to the idea that God does not want them to go there. When Pope Francis said recently that he would like to believe that Hell is empty, he is not trying to change Christian doctrine and say that there is no such thing as Hell. He is saying that he feels sad that anyone might be there, even if they were the most evil person in the world. How do you respond to that thought, brothers and sisters, how do I? 

And here is the point for us of this story, brothers and sisters. Jonah represents that area of our heart where there is no forgiveness for anyone who has ever done us wrong, or whom we perceive has done us wrong. This can include members of our own family. No matter how often or how much they may apologize for what they have done or said, that hard part of our heart doubles down and steadfastly refuses to show mercy. In the prophet Ezekiel, we find the heart of God expressed in these words: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33: 11)Are we willing to go down that path, brothers and sisters? To forgive those who hurt us, when they repent and ask for forgiveness? Can we say to the Lord our God these words: “Give me a new heart, O Lord, and put a new spirit within me. Take from me my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh instead” (Ezekiel 36: 26)Or what about these words of Jesus to his disciples: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 44).

If you think I am being super-spiritual and pious towards you, brothers and sisters, let me admit to you, that I have real problems about this revelation of the heart of God, towards mercy and away from condemnation. I struggle to forgive those who hurt me, ridicule me and chastise me. Sometimes, the words of God make me despair, because I know I fall so far short of the teaching of the word of God. But I accept what God says, I acknowledge my failures and I cry out to God to form my heart after His. I believe that, while God accepts me as I am, he does not leave me there, and takes me where I need to go, but I shrink from going there. Although I am, as I have said before, “Mediocrity preaching perfection”, nonetheless, I believe that  God will, in the words of Psalm 61, “on the rock too high me to reach, place me on high “ (Psalm 61: 2).

God will indeed change my heart to be more like His, if I am willing to let him do this, and ask him to soften my heart where I am hard – hearted and reluctant to let go and forgive .