If we were watching a movie, the Ninevites would make either the worst bad guys ever or the smartest – depending on your perspective. Jonah is one of the more flawed characters in Scripture in that he was told by God to go and prophesy to this people and he tried to run away from his calling because he really hated the people of Ninevah. It would be like if you told Monsignor Ted that he had to go and cheer for the Chicago Cubs — he would have a hard time. But then, even if Monsignor went and did the wave at Wrigley and rooted for the Cubs – he would still be pretty excited if they lost. He might not be surprised, but he would be secretly happy. Jonah did not have any interest in seeing the Ninevites repent. Maybe he was a little afraid to go to them, because he knew they might convert and be saved. As it says, he didn’t even get a day into his trek and they totally throw in the towel and start praying to God for mercy in sackcloth and ashes. The bad guys become pretty good guys…and if you don’t want to be destroyed – it’s pretty smart.
There is something simply beautiful about their conversion. In the full story, it is reported that the king arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nin’eveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” That is humility. The king unites himself to the people and leads them in a recognition of their sin and a prayer for God’s mercy.
This seems to be the same note that Jesus begins with in today’s Gospel. John is taken away to prison and the ministry of Christ takes off from the very same note that John the Baptist had been sounding with only one difference: John proclaimed repentance for things were about to be fulfilled in the coming Messiah. The message of Christ is “Repent for the time of fulfillment is now!” Why? So, that you might believe. We are not in Lent yet, but repentance is once more the theme. It seems this is always a necessity on this earth. We are not perfection, but yet that is what Jesus calls us to become. Nineveh repented, but in being forgiven by God – she will continue on for a long time being a large city in what is now present day Iraq – humbled and yet still Nineveh. We however are called to the time of fulfillment. Well, what’s the trouble? Why is it always so hard that we need to constantly keep turning ourselves back to God in repentance? I think because we just keep falling asleep. We must wake up and turn back to Him because we get lulled into complacency. Sometimes we think we are good enough. We forget the perfection Jesus knows we need to experience eternity and we compare ourselves to our neighbor. We must wake up and realize that we are nothing without God. Or our sins are simply so attractive to us and have been with us so long that we do not understand how life could be different and we stop dreaming of being better and simply sleep without hope. We need to recall that Christ is stronger than our addictions because He has the fullness of life that our sins only lie to us about having. Perhaps we nod off in seeking the praise of men rather than God. We forget that this turns us into slaves for we can never stay in the limelight long enough. People can never praise us sufficiently for we always want more of their admiration. We must seek the praise of God which we cannot hope to hear fully until eternity, but it lasts for eternity. Some fail to see God’s Presence in the world or in their own souls. We should not worship ourselves, but the humility of this quiet God is so great that in His love for us He does dwell in us – only in a way that does not rattle us. He is either there or He is ready to return to our hearts as soon as we call out to Him in confession. The goodness that keeps lighting up the sun that then lights up the morning is the same that lightens up our soul and keeps us drawing breath. He is the Source and yet He is happy to dwell in the raft our being.
Finally, one last difficulty is that we fall the dreaded sleep of our fear. Our fear of death and separation and poverty and sickness….these can numb us to love. Fear about losing things is not illegitimate. The reason why it is always there is because part of us knows that we will lose everything in this life. Nothing here is permanent – which is the very genius behind giving it all up freely. We should have the detachment of the Ninevites who turn from their sin. We should even clamor for the detachment of the Apostles who weren’t doing anything wrong, and yet were still called to a greater path of self abandonment that they might spread the kingdom. All of the Ninevites and all of the Apostles are dead, and yet we can at least speak for the latter that they have received 100 fold more back in the glory of God.
So, I was just in Washington DC on the annual March for Life. In some ways that is a very unfortunate title – to call it an annual march seems to almost admit that we are resigned to the way things are, but we’ll get upset about it once a year and tell whoever is listening in January. We’ll just have to put up with this heartbreak, but to cope with the pain there will be an annual event for anyone who can make it. That story of Jonah is fascinating. God picked a man who would run away to be their prophet. Perhaps because in pursuing Jonah and finally redirecting him back towards this path of warning the people, Jonah’s voice changed. Here is this man still wet from the ocean (after having been spat out by the great fish) perhaps covered in seaweed and looking and sounding like a creature from another dimension. Jonah did not love the Ninevites, but he was passionate. Knowing his own sinfulness and his own dependence upon God, he was woken up. We care about so many causes and we may know the message our neighbor needs to hear. I may have a message of love for women and unborn children that I carry to DC. But until you and I are aware of our need for repentance – our message is just one more brick in the wall.
Christ has already won the battle and brought in the time of fulfillment, and yet it is for us to let go of our sins that we might share not only in the Kingdom – but help bring the message of our own repentance to others that they may join us.
God, help us to understand that You are here and desire us not tomorrow, but Now. Help us to turn from ourselves, from our fear and from our addictions, and help us to love You and help bring our brothers and sisters into Your Kingdom.