Most Christians know the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale but I wonder how many recall just how and why it came about. Jonah got swallowed by the whale because he was a disobedient prophet who rejected his divine commission to tell the people of Nineveh to repent.
Jonah was told by God to tell the people of Nineveh that unless they repented they would be punished. But instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah heads west and boards a ship. The ship gets wrecked in a storm and Jonah is swallowed by the whale. After three days in the whale’s belly, Jonah is delivered back to his starting point. Finally he grudgingly heads to Nineveh and half-heartedly delivers the repentance message to the people of Nineveh.
A good message for Lent
Even though Jonah wasn’t too keen on delivering the repentance message to Israel’s enemies, the message itself is especially appropriate for Lent.
Earlier this month I attended a luncheon for the youth ministers within the Harrisburg diocese. Before our meal, we celebrated Mass at the little chapel in the Cardinal Keeler Center. During his homily, Father Paul C. B. Schenck brought up the first reading from the book of Jonah, specifically this portion:
“Jonah began his journey though 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 proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish” (Jonah 3:4-9).
Even more specifically, Fr. Schenck focused on the phrase “Every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand.” He called to our attention some of the ways we have become desensitized to the violence all around us.
A time to reflect
For instance, when we hear about ISIS slaughtering innocent people on the nightly news, do we feel discontented and angry at such injustice? Or do we shrug our shoulders and continue on with our lives, not affected in any deep way?
Maybe the problems seem distant to us, because those atrocities are happening half a world away. But what if we look at the problems closer to home? Are we outraged that since Roe v. Wade close to 50 million babies have been aborted in the U.S. alone? Currently, with our population at just over 325 Million, that’s close to 15%.
Think about that number. All those human beings with unrealized potential – future surgeons, professors, inventors, artists, musicians, teachers, political leaders, mothers, and fathers – whose lives were ended before they could even begin. They were deemed an inconvenience. To make matters worse, our current political system has allowed places like Planned Parenthood to continue to stay open for business. They are called health care facilities but everyone knows they really specialize in performing abortions.
What’s it going to take to make this country wake up to the truth, and do something about it? Maybe we should take another look at the above passage from Jonah and reflect on our own lives.
Hate is murder
Elsewhere in Scripture, in 1 John 3:15, the apostle wrote: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.” I doubt many of us are really murderers, but there are other ways we can kill each other.
Have you heard the latest gossip at work about your co-worker? Did you spread the rumor, or did you allow the rumor to spread? Did you know you can kill someone through slander? And, if not directly, did you know it could hurt their reputation and self-esteem? Proverbs 18: 21 states: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; . . .”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells the crowd:
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Mt. 5:21).
How often do we feel anger when we are on our daily commute in bumper to bumper traffic and someone suddenly cuts in front of us? Frustration rises up inside us, our muscles start to tense, and the anger gives way to profanity and inappropriate hand gestures.
Anger can turn to hate
Fortunately for most of us our anger doesn’t result in road rage, but we can still unwittingly bring the anger home and unleash it on our spouse or our children. Like a ticking time bomb, just about anything can set us off. Maybe it’s a few misunderstood words, or our spouse nagging us to take out the trash, or our kids hollering playfully around the house. And we explode in a fury of volatile words and actions that cut straight to the hearts of our loved ones.
In the aftermath, we stare into tear filled or even horrified eyes and we quickly realize that our anger and our words have shaken them to their cores. We have killed them in a small way. We can tell they don’t know whether to come over and comfort us, or run for their lives. While they might choose to stay, they’re more likely going to tiptoe around us as if we were dangerous animal, just in case the beast attacks again.
Sometimes anger can turn into hatred, and as the CCC 2303 tells us, “Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm.” Even if we don’t hate to the point of desiring grave harm for someone, just uttering the words ‘I hate you’ in anger is sinful. Such an utterance can also kill in a small way.
A time to repent
Lent is a time of repentance. Perhaps this Lent, God is calling us to soften our hearts to others – to be kind, considerate, and patient. Maybe He is calling all of us to be more caring and forgiving of those who’ve offended us, especially when they don’t know they did it.
Rather than tearing each other down, in a vain attempt to feel superior, we should take a cue from 1 Thessalonians 5: 11 and “. . . encourage one another and build one another up . . .”