Deuteronomy 7:7 gives the breath-taking words of God spoken to Moses: ‘Moses, do you think I chose this people because they are the greatest of nations? No, quite the contrary, they are the least among the nations of the world. I chose them because my heart has fallen in love with them’. This chosen people will be a light to all people. God’s Word does not return to God empty. It bears fruit; it fulfills its mission.
What a strange prophet is Jonah, God’s word bearer sent to the people of Nineveh. He boards a ship going in the opposite direction to flee from God! Was he afraid the Ninevites would kill him? Perhaps not, because he asks no less than three times for death! Fear of death doesn’t seem to be a problem. Poor Jonah, he sleeps through God’s response to his desertion, and then how he must have cringed at the reverence of the pagan crew who cannot believe that he would do such a thing.
The whale spits Jonah on the shore and for a second time he is given his commission as prophet to preach God’s word of conversion to the Ninevites. We don’t know what Jonah says really. I imagine after asking the people on the beach for directions, he told them their whole land would soon be destroyed by God. His unhappy and unwilling presence, his uninviting personality did not bring hellos and smiles from the Ninevites, but to his surprise conversion was totally embraced. Even the king says, ‘let everyone renounce evil behavior and the wickedness they have done’.
Could Jonah have skipped his short walk, his overreacting to God’s never-ending mercy, which triggers a new wave of anger and another request to die? Could it have been the people on the beach who saw Jonah come forth from the whale and who went to the King saying someone eaten by a fish just came out alive on our shore? Did they interpret his damp arrival as a sign from the God of Israel: Behold my best prophet Jonah who is for you a ‘sign of life’ if you change?
Jonah will ask only one more time to die. Then he gets it together enough to realize that he has a long walk back home. No ship would dare take him. ‘Jonah’, the captains said shaking their heads. His story traveled fast, and so it goes even to this day. But he really didn’t ever want to go anywhere on a boat again.
In the end Jonah, perhaps an old, grandfatherly figure matured in faith who can laugh, realizes he was the indeed the message, God’s sign of life. God even enjoyed his ‘creative alternatives’ and his acting out. Apparently, they invited God’s playfulness with a prophet in the true Spirit of Israel, one of the least who was chosen. “How better to demonstrate to the simple Ninevites that God is a God of life, a God who brings life from the dead. What better way to show hope than for God choice of this hopeless prophet”? Jonah laughs. “God said he enjoyed praying with me. I said, ‘playing with me’? God said, “no, Jonah, all was prayer between you and I. Ours is a story of lavish mercy, of new life. Thanks for playing!” Jonah concludes: “I tell you as a prophet, my story only points to a greater story yet to unfold”. God’s Word does not return to God empty. It bears fruit; it fulfills its mission.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is a member of Immaculate Conception Community in Jamaica, New York.