By Alyssa Bormes
I dig Jonah! God calls him to go to Nineveh to preach, so he goes to Tarshish by way of Joppa. That’s like being in Charlotte, North Carolina, being asked to go to New York City, but going to Los Angeles instead.
We have all been Jonah; we’ve all done some running from God. My time in the belly of the whale lasted 17 years, plus there have been a few notable returns since. But there is something rather wonderful about the aquatic prison of Jonah. The maritime sarcophagus was the darkest place, which was exactly why Jonah could finally see the light. He was drowning, but could finally breathe. He was lost, had no control, didn’t know which end was up, but finally found a calm.
In his book, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment, Fr. Paul Murray says that the fish is not a punishment, but a salvation. Even in the dark belly, we can experience grace! Then, Jonah has a resurrection in the midst of being vomited on the land. Wow! Sometimes new life comes in a rather grotesque manner.
Off Jonah goes to preach. It’s a three-day mission, but his words bear fruit in just one day. The king proclaims a fast, and everyone converts—even the animals! What an amazing king! He is so different from Pharaoh when Moses warns of the impending 10th plague.
Sometimes when I teach about the Passover and the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, my students wonder, “How can God do that?” I ask them, “How can Pharaoh do that?” He has the information that all the firstborn sons, including his own, will die. How can Pharaoh ignore this warning? How can he allow it to happen? He just saw the power of God in nine other plagues, yet he sits idly by. Pharaoh was a terrible steward of his power!
So looking at the King of Nineveh again, what a remarkable man! God wasn’t his god; he was a gentile. However, he repented, and God showed mercy to him, and to all of Nineveh.
Great! Mission accomplished, and Jonah lived happily ever after … Except that he didn’t.
In that Ignatian prayer technique of putting yourself into Scripture, it is a bit unnerving how well I fit in with Jonah at the end of the story. He’s mad! He can’t believe that God had mercy on Nineveh. I’ve been sitting next to Jonah trying to get shade from the anemic tree on more than one occasion.
Well, we might as well go right back to Fr. Murray for an explanation. He reminds us that God is the God of all people, and that He is a God of mercy. At the end of the book of Jonah, there is a question, and the question is to all of us. We are given the opportunity to be active participants in mercy.
Fr. Murray says, “Here, on the open page in front of us—in the utter silence after the question—we are being offered the surprising freedom and opportunity to write out for ourselves, as it were, the final paragraph of the Book of Jonah.”
In this Year of Mercy, there is no more running to Tarshish. Get yourself to Nineveh, join the king in repenting, and join God in being merciful!