Spirituality of the Readings
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had direct instructions about our lives, like the ones in the First Reading and the Gospel? Instead of going around in a fog and trying our best to remember how to live, maybe how to pray once in a while, and to get to Mass at least on Sunday, wouldn’t it be great to be caught up into a command that focused our lives, drew us on like a far-shining star?
Yes. But notice that in the First Reading Jonah was quite repelled by the call God gave him. And in the Gospel the disciples surely had no idea what they were getting into when they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Would they have been so quick if they had known about the crucifixion?
It is probably best to begin with the beginning of Jonah’s story (Jonah, 1:1), which is several chapters earlier than our present reading.
There God says to Jonah, “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah does exactly the opposite, like a house cat does sometimes. He drops everything and races off to Joppa and boards a ship to Tarshish, apparently trying get as far from God’s words as possible.
So God sends a terrible storm. Jonah admits to the crew that he is fleeing God. He says, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you, for I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.” When nothing else works, with great reluctance, they toss him overboard. The sea turns quiet. Jonah in turn is swallowed by a “large fish,” usually referred to in tradition as a whale (Jon 2:1).
Residence there gives Jonah plenty of time for retrospection. He prays a psalm-like prayer about what he has done. God hears him and saves him and tells him a second time to go to the great and sinful city of Nineveh to announce the Lord’s message. Jonah submits at last and in today’s First Reading the whole city is converted.
Why in the world didn’t Jonah just follow God’s command instead of running off in the opposite direction? One speculation is that Jonah did not want Nineveh, the pagan city, to convert and be saved because this city was an enemy of the Hebrews. But you and I both know what it is like to run from what God asks, so we can make our own speculations.
As for the apostles (Gospel), they didn’t run away at all. They followed Jesus almost blindly. Possibly they wanted political action. With Jesus’ gentle guidance they found out gradually what following the Messiah really meant. Whereas Jonah had imagined the worst and run away, the apostles imagined the best and ran to follow Jesus. As it happened, they ran into the worst: the passion and crucifixion. Lucky for us all, the resurrection followed since suffering seems to be inevitable in human life, and here was an answer.
Question: are you running away, like Jonah, or running, like the apostles, toward Jesus?
Either way you will surely have suffering. But God will keep after you, pulling you out from fishy environments, pushing you, over and over, asking you to learn, in your obedience, what love is really about.
John Foley, SJ
**From Saint Louis University