The most repeated phrase in the entire Bible is “Do not be afraid.” Despite how often we hear it, it seems we cannot help but cower whenever we are called to live our prophetic vocation bestowed by our Baptism. Perhaps we hear a fellow parishioner demanding changes to Church teaching, or perhaps we have a loved one who has fallen away and now lives a life contrary to the Faith, or perhaps it is simply the constant bombardment of the world we experience. In each case, it is often fear that dictates our behavior. After all, we might offend someone or worse, the world might crucify us.
The Book of Jonah offers valuable lessons in regards to this fear and shows us how we can become the prophets we are called to be. Like us, Jonah initially responds to his prophetic call with fear. However, as the story unfolds we can see how the Lord draws him from fear to faith such that he becomes a powerful witness to the city of Nineveh. This conversion from fear to faith, which equips Jonah to be a prophet, is the same movement we must all continually embrace as Christians. The Lord calls upon each of us that we should in turn call upon others, that all of us should turn from evil and live as children of God the Father.
Step One: Cast out Fear
Like the average Christian, Jonah was going along, living his faith, and doing just fine. Then the Lord calls upon Jonah to be a witness: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Jonah did not jump up and cry out, “Here I am, Lord! Speak for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). Rather, he acts out of fear and seeks to escape the situation altogether. So he spends what must have been his entire inheritance to travel to Tarshish—a city that lies beyond the gates of Gibraltar, west of the Mediterranean. In short, Jonah sought to travel beyond the known world.
What was the source of Jonah’s fear that would elicit such a strong reaction? The reason is multifold. First, Nineveh was a worldly city; they worshipped false gods and lived every kind of immorality. It seems reasonable Jonah feared the reaction by such a people. But this fear demonstrates the deeper problem: Jonah, himself a man of faith, has no faith. He doubts the Lord’s ability to use him. But even more serious, he lacks all faith that these people could or would ever convert.
Do we not often think the same? Whether they be brothers and sisters in the world or those in our own Church, do we really believe in the power of Christ to convert the most hardened of hearts?
Like Jonah, we are all called to be prophets. Through our Baptism, we are “charged” with the responsibility to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim 4:2). Further, the responsibility to rebuke and exhort is also given to us as a spiritual act of Mercy. But also like Jonah, we lack faith and, thus, fall into fear. And so, out of fear we, too, seek to escape: we insulate ourselves and associate only with those like-minded; or daydream of moving to a friendlier region; or drink a glass of wine and escape through entertainment; or we fill our days with so much busyness that we forget our prophetic responsibility completely. No matter the means, the fundamental reason is the same: like Jonah, we do not believe in our own God-given grace to be prophets, and we believe even less in the possibility that those chasing the ways of the world would ever convert.
Step Two: Confession, Humility, and Prayer
Once aboard the ship, Jonah hides himself away in the cargo hold and goes to sleep. Meanwhile, a great storm rages, threatening to shipwreck the vessel and crew. While the sailors run about trying to save themselves, Jonah remains asleep. Even when he is awoken and chastised by the captain, he says nothing (Jonah 1:4-6). His attempt to flee from his religious responsibility has put him in a stupor whereby he fails to see the great suffering around himself or respond to those who would be willing converts. The Lord shows us the dangerous results of our fear. We, too, risk falling into a stupor which blinds us to the spiritual battle that threatens all of us.
At this point in the story, there is also hope. While Jonah remains in his stupor, hesitant to speak the truth, this moment also becomes the beginning of his conversion. It is a painful journey in which Jonah suffers a great humiliation as he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great whale.
Indeed, it is not until Jonah confesses his sin that conversion begins. After the mariners question him, Jonah relents and says, “ I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord” (Jonah 1:9). The story continues to explain, “then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, ‘what have you done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them” (Jonah 1:10, emphasis added). Jonah’s confession begins with the admission of fear which in turn leads to his attempt to escape his vocation as a prophet. Only after confession, is Jonah able to grow in faith.
As with all of us, Jonah must learn humility, and so is cast down into the sea and swallowed up by a whale. This act of humiliation may seem odd to us. After all, doesn’t his fearfulness reflect his humility? Yet, the kind of fear which Jonah exhibits, in the beginning, is itself form of pride. His fear is precise because he thinks only in terms of human ability. He sees only his own ability with regard to witnessing to the Ninevites as well as seeing only their hardened hearts. In both cases, it is this reliance on human strength alone which demonstrates a pride that presumes the Lord can have no effect on either account. In short, Jonah’s fear is born of the belief that human weakness is greater than the power of the Lord. It is a feigned humility that is actually a form of pride.
Only after Jonah humbles himself is he able to grow in faith. For three days he is cast, alone, in the belly of a whale. His only recourse during this time is prayer, which we read in his canticle (Jonah 2:2-9). Though Jonah has lived his entire life as a Jew, he does not really know the Lord. Rather it is only when every distraction has been removed, and he sits in quiet anticipation for the word of God that his faith ignites. Similarly must we, as children of God, seek to humbly sit in silent prayer and meditation so that we can come to know the Lord. Only in humility can we surrender ourselves to God and so come to know the Lord. In addition, Jonah shows us that our prayer and meditation must be of Sacred Scripture, for his canticle itself is an amalgamation of Psalms (see Psalm 40, 69, and 120).
Step Three: Speak the Truth!
So there Jonah is, alone and in the belly of a whale. He is not afraid but begins to trust the Lord. So he is vomited out of the fish and returns home. That he returns home reflects how our relationship with the Lord must not be only in those in-between moments of dedicated prayer but also incorporated into our entire lives. Especially if we are to keep the faith necessary to live our prophetic vocation.
The Lord comes to Jonah and says again, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). Now a man of true faith, Jonah is not afraid. He sets out towards Nineveh at once. In the end of the story, we see Jonah fulfill his vocation as a prophet. We also see the impact this fulfillment can have as the Ninevites have a conversion of heart and dedicate themselves to penance and reparation. So, too, are we able to convert the world when we step out in faith rather than fear and share the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. But it requires knowing who Jesus is, which requires us to dedicate ourselves to prayerful meditation on scripture. It requires also great virtue, especially the virtue of humility, which requires us to make habitual use of the Sacrament of Confession.
The end of the Book of Jonah emphasizes the importance of humility. Since we so often do not know our right from our left we easily fall into condemning our brothers and sisters rather than saving them. As we step out and preach our Faith, we must remember the Lord’s final words to Jonah, who out of pride becomes angry that the Lord has not destroyed the city, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city… who do not know their right hand from their left…?” (Jonah 4:11)