The whole story of the prophet Jonah, of which the last part we heard of a moment ago in the first reading, is probably my most favourite in the Bible. Unlike the lives of many saints – perfect, infallible, always making the right decisions and unfailingly following God’s will – this chap is so refreshingly human and imperfect that it reflects my own shortcomings.
His story begins when God tells him to go to the city of Nineveh and proclaim its imminent destruction to its inhabitants as a punishment for their sinfulness. The moment Jonah receives the call he boards a ship and heads away in exactly the opposite direction, hiding his true identity and trying to run away. When a massive storm hits the ship he knows it’s because of him; he hides deep in the hold, pretending to be asleep. When the desperate sailors shove Jonah out and orders him to pray to his god to avert their certain death, he realises that he put them in this dangerous situation, reveals his identity and instructs them to push him out of the ship, which they duly do. Jonah then drifts for a while, clinging to a piece of debris floating on the surface; forget the whale, it was added to the story to make it more dramatic. During those long hours in the water he changes his mind. When he eventually makes it to dry land and when God tells him again to go to Nineveh, he obediently does so. But then, the inhabitants of the city, along their authorities repent; they fast, they wear sackcloth and their king sits in ashes – a good old-fashioned way of showing sorrow and repentance. So God decides to spare the city and its people. Instead of being proud of ‘a job well done’, Jonah is infuriated by this change of mind by God. The prophet vents his anger at God, because Jonah feels he was made a fool in the eyes of the city dwellers. He heralded hail and brimstone, he announced total destruction, and suddenly none of these is going to happen. He’s so upset that he wants to die!
When we strip Jonah’s story of all those decorative bits and miraculous circumstances – serving only the dramatization of the tale – we can see a decent, religious, but self-absorbed and self-centred man, overly bothered of people’s perception of him. His motives are laid bare when he vents his anger: ‘Ah, Lord, is not this just as I said would happen when I was still at home? That was why I went and fled to Tarshish: I knew that you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil.’ He knew that God would show his mercy if the people repented. He values his reputation much higher than the fatal prospects of many fellow human beings. He’s a man who loves his comforts; as we heard tonight, he is happy to utilise the bush providing some shade, but angered out of all proportion when it withers and the shadow is no more. But he is very true before God; he tells God about his anger, frustration and whatever else he feels.
As I said earlier on, I love this story because I am not perfect; sometimes I get incensed or angry out of proportion; sometimes I’m so self-absorbed and overly sensitive to what people think about me or what their perception of me is. But from the prophet Jonah I learn not to be afraid of telling God how I feel. And sometimes God answers me with the similar question he asked of Jonah: ‘Are you right to be angry?’ Obviously this is a needle bursting the overblown self-importance. In the story God uses the withered bush to show Jonah how foolishly self-centred he is. By looking around us with open eyes we can find out how small our problems are, how out of proportion sometimes we react. As many are not that lucky, we should be rather thankful for all our relative comforts, securities and safety.