Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Heart Contrite And Humbled, O God, You Will Not Spurn

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent
Reading I
Jonah 3:1-10
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’s bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through 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.”

When God saw by their actions
how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil
that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
Jonah, probably not a historical figure, is one of the most attractive characters in the Bible. Although he is listed among the Minor Prophets, his book is more a cautionary tale than prophecy in the strict sense. There is an underlying humour through the whole book of Jonah which one does not often find in the Old Testament. The book also indicates a softening of attitudes by the Jews towards Gentiles. They were not totally beyond God’s compassion and mercy.

Jonah is asked by God to go east to preach to the pagan people of Niniveh, the capital city of Assyriah, described as being so big that it took three days to walk across it. Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about 13 km (8 miles) in circumference or a larger area comprising a four-city complex (‘Greater Niniveh’) which would have been about 100 km (60 miles) in circumference. However, we are not dealing with a historical document and the idea is simply to say that it was a huge city with an awful lot of people - all unbelievers in the true God.

However, instead of doing what God tells him, Jonah takes a ship and goes west - in the opposite direction. He cannot believe that God could show mercy to such wicked pagans. After a huge storm threatens to sink the ship and all on board, the crew become aware that Jonah, in disobeying a mission from his God, is the cause of all their trouble. So he is unceremoniously dumped overboard where he is promptly swallowed by a huge fish (traditionally, a whale). Even the whale does not particularly enjoy the presence of Jonah and, after three days, coughs him up on the shore.

By now Jonah begins to get the message that God means business and he reluctantly proceeds to go and preach to the people of Niniveh, a city synonymous with paganism and idolatry. He threatens the city with destruction if the people do not change their ways. “Only 40 days more and Niniveh will be overthrown.” The 40 days is reminiscent of the Flood, God’s punishment on a wicked world, which lasted 40 days or of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. The Hebrew expression for ‘overthrown’ is also an echo of the ‘overthrowing’ of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by a special act of God.

To Jonah’s great surprise there is an immediate response to his call for penance. “They believed in God”. In today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions this unexpected conversion and compares it with those Jews who refuse to believe in him.

From the greatest to the least, the citizens of Niniveh begin to fast and wear penitential sackcloth. Even the king “took off his robes, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes”. Even animals were not to be given food. Inclusion of the domestic animals was unusual but expressed the urgency with which the Ninevites sought God’s mercy. Even then, forgiveness seemed too much to hope for. “Who knows? Perhaps God will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath so that we shall not perish.”

The result was that God did indeed look kindly on their efforts to change their ways and relented. The threatened punishment for their wickedness was not inflicted. Clearly, repentant Gentiles were also the object of God’s love and forgiveness.

The thrust of this story seems to be that, contrary to traditional Jewish belief (of which Jonah himself was an example), “wicked” Gentiles could respond to God’s call and change their ways.

This is an anticipation of what would happen in the early Church, where the first Jewish Christians gradually came to realise that the Gospel call was extended to people everywhere.

For us, at this time of Lent, it is a reminder of our need to repent, both in the sense of being truly sorry for all the wrong we have done and the good we have failed to do and to reflect on how our lives can be brought more in line with the call of the Gospel. It is also a time to reflect on our attitudes to non-Catholics and non-Christians or ex-Christians. Jesus himself says that we will be surprised at the number and kinds of people who will go before us in his Kingdom. Let us make sure that we will be among them. Lent is a time to make the right preparations.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 51
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Luke 11:29-32
While still more people gathered in the crowd,
Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise
with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh
will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”
Today’s readings are about doing penance for our sins and they are linked by the name of Jonah.

In Mark’s gospel the crowds are often shown as recognising God’s presence in Jesus better than the Scribes and Pharisees do. In Luke, however, they are sometimes shown as people curious to see signs and wonders but without any real commitment to following Jesus.

So today we are told that “the crowds got even bigger” and Jesus spoke to them. But what he said was not very flattering. “This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.” The only sign they will get will be the sign of Jonah. Jesus, like Jonah, is a call to repentance and radical conversion. And Jesus implies that many of his listeners are not ready or willing to hear that call. They don’t need any signs; Jesus has been giving them an abundance of signs through his teaching and healing work.

On the judgment day, they, the chosen people of God, will be surprised to see the Queen of the South rise up because she, pagan that she was, came a long distance to listen to the wisdom of Solomon - and Jesus is someone far superior to Solomon. They will be surprised to see the people of Niniveh, pagans that they were, rise up because they repented at the preaching of Jonah - and Jesus is far greater than Jonah.

We too, who claim to be God’s People, may be surprised to see who will be called to God’s side on judgment day because they heard and followed God’s word according to their capacity. The question is: where will we be on that day? Thomas A Kempis, the writer of a famous medieval treatise, called The Imitation of Christ, asked that very same question. He was worried about whether he would persevere in serving Christ to the very end of his life. He said he was told in answer to his prayer: “Do now what you would like to have done then, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

Where will I be on the Day of Judgement? The answer to that question can be decided by me this very day and every single day from now on.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed'

In a sense, the old, bad Nineveh was indeed destroyed when the men of that generation repented. At the beginning of Lent, these words can make us think of how our repentance might destroy the Nineveh within us. Jonah's 3-day walk through the city could correspond to the three days of Easter, both bearing fruit in righteousness and rebirth!

I like the way the King is the last one to repent, and then tries to make it look as though it is all happening at his behest. It was a grass-roots initiative, so that should encourage us - after all, the men of Nineveh weren't even living in a democracy. What's our excuse?

Repent and believe the Gospel.

This proclamation by Christ is sometimes spoken by the priest on Ash Wednesday. The men of Nineveh, who received Jonah's message, are a model of repentance, but perhaps also a warning from history to the Jews not to rest on the laurels of more righteous, earlier generations.

The Queen of the South is a model of belief - of how to believe the Gospel. She received reports of Solomon's wisdom and wealth and decided she ought to go out of her way to investigate them. When she did, she was amazed - and so are we at the Gospel.

What is the sign of Jonah? It has meant different things at different times. For Christians, Jonah in the belly of the fish is a sign of Christ's death and resurrection.

For Jews at the time when Jesus spoke these words, the sign of Jonah was, I guess, a bit more worrying. It reminded them that God's mercy might extend even to their enemies (for Nineveh read Rome), who might then attack them. Also, at the time of Jesus, Nineveh had long since been destroyed by the Medes and Babylonians (in 612 BC). Was that too part of the sign of Jonah, a delayed retribution because later, evil generations had not kept the promises of the generation that repented?

Why 'greater than Jonah'? Jonah's great value as a sign to the men of Nineveh was probably the fact that he was from one of their victim races. Why would he risk his life to warn them? Especially since he is so obviously reluctant! Jesus too speaks to those who would victimize him, but he is a greater, purer, more fully human, divine victim.

Why greater than Solomon? In wisdom and authority, obviously. But there is also Jesus' glory. Solomon's glory depended on wealth and reputation, but Jesus says that the glory of the lilies of the field is greater. It is an intrinsic glory, not one that can be bought or hyped, and for this reason the world easily overlooks it. Jesus' glory is like that, to the nth degree.