Our first reading today is from the book of Jonah, one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. It’s just four chapters long. It’s a short book but there’s a lot there. The passage we read today is from Chapter 3, right in the middle of the story. Today’s reading begins with the Lord speaking to Jonah, sending him to Ninevah to deliver a message. But it’s not the first time the Lord’s given Jonah the command.
Chances are that when you think of Jonah, you think of him being swallowed by the whale, and you’re right. As Paul Harvey used to say, that’s the rest of the story.
When the Lord first spoke to Jonah and asked him to go to Ninevah, he was afraid. See, the Jews and the Ninevites were bitter enemies. The Lord wasn’t just sending Jonah to deliver an unpleasant message. He was sending him into a city where he might be killed, even if he was bringing GOOD news. Jonah was so afraid that he jumped a ship headed to Tarshish. He thought he could hide from God.
Tarshish was in the land we now today as Spain, more than 2,000 miles from Ninevah. At that time, around 500 BC, Tarshish was literally the end of the world. Jonah was running, or sailing, as far away from God as he thought he could.
But you can’t hide from God and shortly after the ship set out, a violent storm took hold of it. To make a long story short, the other men on the ship find out that Jonah is running from the Lord and that the storm is God’s punishment. At Jonah’s request, they throw him into the sea and immediately the storm stops. Jonah is swallowed by the whale. In the belly of the whale Jonah repents of his sin and after three days God commands the whale to take him back to Ninevah and spit him out on the beach.
Notice Jonah didn’t spend two days in his watery hell. He didn’t spend four days. He spent three days. Sound familiar? Jesus also spent three days in the nether world before he was raised from the dead.
Being 21st century Midwesterners, you and I may not have a lot of insight into 5th century life on the Mediterranean Sea, so I thought I’d share this with you. In the book Moby Dick by Herman Mehlville, a character called Father Mapple preaches on the story of Jonah. His congregation was sailors, sailors’ wives and sailors’ widows. He says,
“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches us?
“As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and Joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to pursuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”
One more passage from Father Mapple:
“Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land; when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten—his ears, like two sea shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean—Jonah did the Almighty’s biddint. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!”
The Lord tells Jonah to go into Ninevah to tell the people that in forty days their city will be destroyed. Now Ninevah was a fairly large city. Chapter 4 tells us that it was more than 120,000 people. The writer tells us that it takes three days to walk across it. But, in just one day Jonah convinces them to repent. The king proclaimed a fast and everyone put on sackcloth. Jonah must have been one heck of a preacher. When God saw that they had repented, he spared the city.
In the second reading, Paul warns the people of Corinth that time is running out, just like Jonah told the people of Ninevah. “The world in its present form is passing away.” Turn away from sin and turn to God. The pleasures and the riches of this world are nothing compared to what God has in store for them, and for us.
Finally, in the Gospel today Jesus tells the Galileans “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets to follow Jesus. James and John walked away from their Father and their fellow fisherman.
That’s what God is calling us to do. Walk away from the nets that entangle us. What are your “nets”? What are the things in your life that are keeping you from following Jesus with “all your soul, with all your heart, and with all your mind”? Are they really that important? The honest answer is, “No, they’re not.” God speaks to us all the time. He wants us to do his will. But that usually means we have to make a choice. We gave up some other activity to come to church today. When we spend time in prayer, there’s always something else that we could be doing. When we do good works for others, we’re sacrificing time and treasure that we could be using for some other purpose.
Father Thomas Merton once said that when you’re trying to choose between two things, God’s will is usually the harder choice.
When He calls, you can run away like Jonah did. That didn’t work out so well. After much suffering and repentance, he ended up doing what God asked after all. Or you can do what the Apostles did; lay down your nets and follow Jesus.