Are you a Jonah?
We all know the story of Jonah and the whale; how Jonah as swallowed by “a great fish” and, after three days, was vomited out. It is a reading we will hear in October this year, but we will also hear of Jonah in the first week of Lent, when Luke’s Gospel speaks of the Son of Man being like the sign of Jonah to the Ninevites (Lk 11:29-32 for Feb. 25).
For us Christians, we know that Jesus meant he would be in the belly of the tomb for three days, just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days. Jonah is called “a type,” or an example that points to what Jesus did.
However, Jonah was not very much like Jesus otherwise.
This man’s name meant “dove,” but he wasn’t very dove-like. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Jonah’s name may have been derived from the Hebrew word yanah, which means to mourn or to complain.
Jonah was one of 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament and seems to have been born near Galilee in the eighth century B.C. As a prophet — a role that means to be open to God’s word and prepared to be sent — Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire at that time. The Assyrians were enemies of the Jews and, about 50 years later, Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and invaded Jerusalem. So Jonah probably had good reason to want to disobey God.
Jonah was not a happy person, nor a willing prophet. Instead of acting on God’s word, he took the next ship going in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was 500 miles to the east of Jonah’s hometown of Gath-hepher. Instead, Jonah went toward Tarshish, about 2,500 miles to the west.
God likes prophets to do as they are asked and so the weather turned against Jonah’s ship. The sailors, fearing for their lives, prayed to their gods and cast lots to see who among them was bringing destruction upon them. This is where the term “a Jonah” comes from. The lot fell against Jonah. Sailors believed that certain people bring bad luck, such as women (considered to be a distraction) and those who have angered gods — as they knew Jonah had done. (He even admitted it to them.) Once the sailors, at his own suggestion and after prayer on their part, tossed Jonah overboard, the sea grew calm. A superstition — or at least a bad name (“a Jonah”) — was born.
Jonah repented and spent his time inside the fish praying. Once he was back on dry land, the Lord again commanded him to go to Nineveh. Jonah did as he was told, proclaiming the words we hear this coming Sunday: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”
What happened? The Assyrians believed him and proclaimed a fast; they donned sackcloth and sat in ashes. They even put sackcloth on their animals.
God, full of mercy even to those who are not of his people, spared Nineveh.
Jonah was furious. He told God off, wished himself dead and stormed out into the desert to sulk.
What did God do? He caused a plant, often depicted as a gourd, to grow up in one day to shade Jonah from the sun. Jonah became proud of the gourd — which he had nothing to do with growing. And then God killed the plant.
Jonah again got angry, wished he was dead and fell into another sulk.
God, who is patient, asked Jonah why he was so angry and sad about a plant that he had nothing to do with creating. God then asks why he, God, should not care about “Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?” (Jon 4:11).
That’s the last we hear of Jonah. But Jesus later uses him as a sign. Why?
Other than the part about being in the tomb for three days and being a prophet himself, Jesus is not at all like Jonah:
Where Jonah runs away from his mission, Jesus resolutely heads toward Jerusalem and the cross.
While Jonah sulks and complains and wishes for death, Jesus — even in the agony of the garden and wishing he could be spared — asks that God’s will be done.
While Jonah puts others at risk — the sailors in the storm — Jesus risks himself to save, cure and even raise others from the dead.
And, Jesus even got into a boat to calm a storm: he didn’t need to get tossed out.
So do you want to be “a Jonah” or “a Jesus?”
Both Jonah and Jesus were prophets, accepting God’s plans, proclaiming God’s word and suffering for the truth of that word. However, the sign of Jonah — a fish — was turned upside-down by Jesus. Instead of a fish swallowing someone, a fish became a symbol of Jesus himself — and of the food of his own body.
While “a Jonah” is a sign of someone who brings bad luck, Jesus is the exact opposite. Thanks to Jesus, we are all promised good luck from the sign of Jonah: resurrection from the belly of the tomb, calm seas at journey’s end and a place at the everlasting banquet.
Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia”; usccb.org; Catholic Answers at catholic.com and Biblestudyforcatholics.com.