As a student in the seminary, I had to pass exams at the end of every term. Each time I faced an uphill task in getting to grips with the overwhelming amount of knowledge I had both to remember and to use intelligently in those exams; my professors demanded that I displayed my skills to process that knowledge and produce something valuable out of it. Very soon I developed some techniques to help me learn quickly and efficiently. I also found a simple but powerful motivational tool: every time I got scared of the exams, I told myself: ‘Many less capable managed to pass these exams, so I can do it.’ I know – it wasn’t modest. I made myself into a boastful bighead. Nowadays I’m not proud of having been like that, but the technique worked for me back in those days, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Now, I’m not sure that my presence is actually to your advantage…
It can be rather intimidating and discouraging when we read biblical stories about great and invariably successful individuals who rarely fail; and even their failures eventually turn into successes. Every time I read in the Acts of the Apostles about St Peter’s preaching being so powerful that the number of converts was in the thousands, I feel guilty when I consider my preaching successful if nobody goes to sleep. Today we have the story of the prophet Jonah, sent to a massive and potentially hostile city to call its inhabitants to repentance, and he obviously succeeds. Whenever we try to talk similarly to members of our close families, or our friends, we tend to fail to make any positive impact; in fact, a negative reaction from them is more usual. So after a few attempts we tend to shut up and carry on with life, avoiding talk about religion in order to keep the peace.
This is actually what somehow the experience of the prophet Jonah was. The short passage which we heard in today’s first reading was like looking at his story through a keyhole, revealing only a tiny – and somehow the most spectacular – part of it. The whole story is much, much closer to our own. When he was called by God for the first time to go to Nineveh and to announce to the city its imminent destruction, Jonah was so terrified that he boarded a ship and sailed in exactly the opposite direction, hiding his identity from the crew. During a powerful storm at sea, he eventually admitted that quite likely the storm would abate if he wasn’t on board. The sailors duly dropped him off, but there was no hard shoulder at sea, so he was drowning when a whale swallowed the prophet. The weather suddenly improved and the ship sailed on while Jonah made the first human underwater journey. The three days and nights spent in there was the time of his personal conversion. Then, thrown out of the whale as indigestible onto the shore, Jonah was called a second time to carry God’s message to the city of Nineveh. So, that was the lead-up to what we heard in the first reading. There’s also a follow-up. After Jonah had preached the destruction of the city, he sat on a nearby hill to watch his announcement fulfilled in what he assumed would be a great spectacle of fire and brimstone. But, as God spared the city due to the inhabitants’ change of heart, the prophet got irritated and angry, because – in his own eyes – this rendered him a religious weirdo and undermined his status as God’s messenger.
When we strip the story of all its miraculous and improbable elements, it’s a story of a man who is self-centred and preoccupied with himself, outwardly proud and strong, but who is in fact vulnerable and scared, sometimes overwhelmed by the demands of life and failing dramatically. But it’s also a story of a man learning from his mistakes and finding that his imperfections keep him away from being foolishly proud and boastful. We are called by Jesus to follow Him like the fishermen in today’s gospel, not because we are already perfect but in spite of our limitations and fears. Our strength comes from our weakness, supported and perfected by Jesus.