Sunday, January 21
What kind of certainty are we supposed to have in life? What should we be sure about? In the first reading we are reminded briefly about the story of Jonah and the Ninevites. From what we know about Nineva, it was not particularly morally corrupt when compared to the different cities around. It would seem that Nineva, when looked at from the outside, was a city that wasn’t particularly religious, it participated in the same sorts of organized commerce and city life that you would have found elsewhere at that time. In short, Nineva was a lot like the cities where most people live. We can safely imagine that Jonah began preaching doom to people who did not stand out as any more wicked than us.
We don’t get any of the back story of Jonah, which is perhaps too bad because he is a really complex figure who is relatable in ways most of us wouldn’t be willing to admit. He knows that God exists and is powerful, but he doesn’t want to do what God is calling him to do. He is reluctant because he suspects God is going to be merciful to the Ninevites, which he would find disappointing. This would finally be an opportunity for God to manifest His justice, and instead He’ll just forgive them and have mercy. So, it is difficult to picture Jonah as too terribly enthusiastic about his preaching mission. Ninevah, it says, is a massive city, and should take three days for Jonah to walk through. I imagine that Jonah was even further annoyed that he had prepared three days worth of sermons, and the last two days were cancelled because he and his message were no longer needed. It is amusing to engage with the humanity of Jonah as we consider the effects of his prophesy.
The Scripture is worded very carefully,
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
“when the people of Nineveh believed God;
They didn’t believe Jonah – they believed God. In other words, they took the word of Jonah not as the word of a man, but as it truly is, the Word of God. The people didn’t ask for a sign, they didn’t throw eggs or stones, they didn’t ask God for a different prophet, they didn’t complain to Jonah that he didn’t even try to understand them or where they are coming from. As St. Augustine says, “In uncertainty, they repented and received certain mercy.” What’s more, after they repented, did pennance, fasted, etc. there was no response from God. God simply spared them, and as St. Jerome says, “There was no response to their repentance; rather, God met their questioning with silence. Thus [the outcome of] their repentance is left uncertain, that being doubtful of their salvation, they may repent more vehemently and know the mercy, patience and compassion of God even more.”
So if we return to the first question, “what can we be sure of in life?” Today’s scriptures point us in a very clear direction: “Time is running out” – which we hear in the second reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians. Father Robert McTeigue, a Jesuit whose podcast I listen to every day, put it this way: “We are running out of time, into eternity.” We don’t have time to be suspicious of the call to repentance – we need to simply adopt the attitude of the Ninevites, whose daily vocation became the examination of their consciences, and the imploring of God’s mercy. Has our attitude of repentance and our crying out for mercy already been sufficient? We don’t know – and that’s the way God has left things intentionally. God’s love for us is mercy – we don’t have a better experience of God’s love than His mercy. The power of God’s love we can only experience in being forgiven by him, in receiving His mercy. He doesn’t love some people more because they do more stuff “for Him.” He loves some people more because they weep as they turn over to Him more completely their hearts, their misery, their sickness: their sin.
We are running out of time into eternity. Eternity is the embrace of our Heavenly Father. We can’t afford to let our time on this earth be consumed with earthly pursuits – no matter how noble they may be. What we leave behind will either help those running after us into the heavenly embrace – or become obstacles that lead them to focus on the earth as if it were the only real home for humanity. We are children of our heavenly Father by grace and by our baptism – and so we have a destiny beyond this present life. We must run towards heaven with hearts full of repentance, so that when our separation happens, and our souls are no longer bound by time, and our bodies await the resurrection, we will reach our true home.
If you live this way, the world will tell you that you are out of your mind – but you will have the mind of Christ.
AUGUSTINE: In uncertainty they repented and obtained certain mercy. EXPLANATION OF THE PSALMS 50.19
JEROME: There was no response to their repentance; rather, God met their questioning with silence. Thus [the outcome of] their repentance is left uncertain, that being doubtful of their salvation, they may repent more vehemently and know the mercy, patience and compassion of God even more. COMMENTARY ON JONAH 4.9.20
SEVERIAN OF GABALA: If married people are supposed to live as if they were single, how is it possible not to prefer virginity? PAULINE COMMENTARY FROM THE GREEK CHURCH.11d