Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We read the Book of Jonah this week. Often, when people talk about Jonah, their question is: “Do you think he really got swallowed by a whale?” But, interesting as that question is, to focus there is really to miss the point of the book!
In its historical context, the Book of Jonah was meant to diagnose and critique a mistaken attitude toward Israel’s relationship with God. It’s an attitude that can plague the contemporary Church as well, so it’s worth pondering.
From the beginning of their history Israel had known they were Yahweh’s chosen people. But, over time, they had come to realize that Yahweh was not just the god of their nation, but the one true God. The combination of these two ideas — election and monotheism — could give rise to two attitudes. The first — and more prevalent at the time of Jonah — was, “We are the only chosen people of the only God. Too bad for everyone else! Those sinners deserve whatever punishment they get.”
The first crucial detail of the Book of Jonah, then, is the fact that Jonah was sent to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the historical and proverbial enemy of Israel. When Jonah was sent with the message that Nineveh was about to be destroyed, the typical reaction in Israel would have been: “Exactly what those sinners deserve!”
When Nineveh repents, however, and receives God’s mercy, Jonah embodies the reaction of Israel. He is furious. “Those sinners didn’t get what they deserved!” God tells him, in effect, “I want you to think about this: I’m the creator of everything and everyone. That means the people of Nineveh belong to me, too. I want them to repent, and be in a relationship with me. I rejoice when they do. You should, too.”
That was the other possible attitude someone could take: If Yahweh chose us, and Yahweh is the one true God, then maybe we have a mission to the entire world! A key point of the Book of Jonah is to critique the exclusive attitude, and promote this missionary attitude.
What lesson can we learn from that prophetic critique?
For much of theological history, the Church was spoken of as an ark. And that idea isn’t wrong. The Church is most definitely the ark of salvation!
But the image of an ark can also form a pattern of thinking and acting that closes us off from a mission to the world. We think: “As long as we stay safely in the ark, nothing can go wrong.” It becomes a modern version of the old exclusivism of Israel: “Too bad for everyone outside!”
Those of us who have the privilege of being in the ark of the Church, however, are not meant to stay there in the sense of closing ourselves off from everyone else. Instead, we’re meant to carry the Gospel out to the world, in order to invite others into the ark.
That’s why the Second Vatican Council spoke of the Church as “a sacrament — a sign and instrument.” Those terms — sign and instrument — establish a different trajectory in the imagination. A sign goes out to others. An instrument carries something out. The concepts of “sign and instrument” more readily capture the movement that the prophets were trying to establish in Israel. It’s a missionary movement that we very much need today.
This week concludes with readings from the prophets Malachi and Joel. One theme in those readings is that the day of judgment is coming.
When the day of judgment comes, the question will not be: Were you successful? Rather, the question will be: Did you try? Did you share the Good News? Did you put your talents to work or bury them in the ground? Did you make the ark your home base, or did you make it a hiding place?