The humorist Garrison Keillor once remarked, “In the Garden of Eden, instead of telling Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God should have told Adam and Eve not to eat the snake.” Obviously, the mistake wasn’t on God’s part, but on the part of humans. There is a natural tendency in human nature to acknowledge what’s best but to choose its opposite. The book of Jonah, which provides today’s first reading, is a commentary on human nature’s self-defeating tendencies.
Nineveh, the city that plays a central role in the book of Jonah, was a city of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and carried away its residents as slaves. Later, Assyria was conquered by the Babylonian Empire, which conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and deported its residents as slaves. Babylon, in turn, fell to the Persian Empire. The Persian emperor took a different approach to dealing with conquered peoples; he allowed the Hebrew exiles to return to Judea from Babylon.
The book of Jonah is a parable intended to shame the repatriated exiles of Judea into choosing what was best for themselves and the whole world. In the parable, God calls a prophet named Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh. The city of Nineveh is a metaphor for the two foreign kingdoms where the tribes of Israel had been held captive. Jonah’s initial refusal to go to Nineveh was a reflection of the strident nationalism among the returned exiles in Judea. They gloated over the fall of Assyria and Babylon. Apparently, they went so far as to wish even further misfortune on their former captors.
Our first reading today is taken from the part of the story when the population of Nineveh repented and God, consequently, relented from the threat of destruction issued against the city. In the Hebrew Scriptures, repentance means to reverse course, to do an “about face” in military jargon. In the book of Jonah, the prophet initially turned away from God and from the prophetic vocation conferred by God. After an ordeal that brought him to repentance, the prophet did an “about face,” turned toward the city of Nineveh, and embraced God’s will. The prophet’s repentance was a necessary precondition for the repentance of Nineveh.
The newly returned residents of Judea would have rejoiced if the story ended with the total destruction of the pagans inhabiting Nineveh. Mirroring the sentiments of the returned exiles, Jonah complained that God had not fulfilled God’s promise to destroy the city. In one important sense, however, Nineveh was destroyed; the old Nineveh of sin ceased to exist and gave way to a new Nineveh of repentance and faith. It’s a rather complicated story that teaches a simple lesson: repentance is a response to an example of faithfulness; repentance will not result from an attitude of judgmentalism.
A few weeks ago, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we read a selection from the prophet Isaiah which described the returning exiles as “a light for the nations.” (Isa. 42:6) The lesson of the parable of Jonah is that one cannot be “a light to the nations” if one’s heart is filled with the darkness of hatred and self-righteousness.
There are, according to the book of Jonah, two ways to overcome an enemy. The first, and most popular, is to promote the annihilation of one’s enemy; the second is to promote the repentance of one’s enemy. The former is motivated by sin and the latter by faith.
Think, for a moment, about all the individuals, groups, and nations which desire to see the destruction of their enemies. In nearly every case, the desired destruction is inspired by selfishness, fear, and extremism; the only possible outcome of such destructive tendencies is to prolong conflict and suffering. The second possibility for lasting change, namely, an example of a righteous life that inspires repentance in those who witness it, promotes the good of all. Perhaps, more importantly, a righteous life fulfills the Divine command to be “a light for the nations.” (Isa. 42:6)
Everyone wants to see the end of conflict and strife. Unfortunately, most attempts to end conflict serve only to increase hostility and suffering. The lesson taught by the parable of the prophet Jonah is that violence and conflict can’t be ended by means of violence and conflict. This lesson ought to be obvious to everyone; obviously, however, it isn’t obvious to many.
Funnily enough, in the parable, Nineveh was destroyed by God’s power. The old Nineveh of faithlessness and sin was destroyed through repentance, and a new Nineveh of obedience to God was born. If only the same sort of destruction could happen in our lives.