On this feast day of the Apostle S. Matthew, we also remember the reluctant Hebrew prophet Jonas. Here is his entry in the martyrology:
“Commemoration of Saint Jonas, the prophet, son of Amathi, by whose name a book of the Old Testament is called and whose famous exit from the belly of a sea-creature is presented as a sign of the Resurrection of the Lord by the Gospel itself.”Roman martyrology, September the 21st
The last of the prophets of the the Hebrew Bible was not sent to the Chosen People of Israel, but to the Assyrians of Nineve. It was a successful mission, although Jonas ran from it at first, fleeing westward by ship. He is promptly arrested by a storm and chucked overboard by the crew of the ship, who realised that his presence was the reason for the storm threatening their lives and property. Tossed in the sea, Jonas was swallowed by a large sea-creature and remained within it for three days. This story was famously used by Christ to describe his own three days in the tomb before His Resurrection (Gospel of S. Matthew, 12: 39-41), so that we could call Jonas’ prayer from the belly of the beast to be Christ’s own prayer.
“Call I on the Lord in my peril, redress He grants me; from the very womb of the grave call I, Thou art listening to me! Here in the depths of the sea’s heart Thou wouldst cast me away, with the flood all about me, eddy of Thine, wave of Thine, sweeping over me, till it seemed as if I were shut out from Thy regard: yet life Thou grantest me; I shall gaze on Thy holy temple once again. Around me the deadly waters close, the depths engulf me, the weeds are wrapped about my head; mountain caverns I must plumb, the very bars of earth my unrelenting prison; and still, O Lord my God, Thou wilt raise me, living, from the tomb. Daunted this heart, yet still of the Lord I would bethink me; prayer of mine should reach Him, far away in His holy Temple! Let fools that court false worship all hope of pardon forgo; mine to do sacrifice in Thy honour, vows made and paid to the Lord, my Deliverer!“Jonas, 2: 3-10
Here, all at once, we have a message of faith in the midst of a seemingly complete abandon and a typically Israelite condemnation of idolatry. Just for this prayer would I treasure this short book above other smaller books of prophecy in its vicinity in the Bible. After being spat out by the sea-beast, Jonas completed his word of prophecy to the Ninevites and, surprisingly, they hearken to the voice of this foreign prophet and take on the ancient forms of penitence. This third chapter is very suitable for the Christian season of Lent:
“With that, the Ninevites shewed faith in God, rich and poor alike, proclaiming a fast and putting on sackcloth; nay, the king of Nineve himself, when word of it reached him, came down from his throne, cast his robe aside, put on sackcloth, and sat down humbly in the dust. And a cry was raised in Nineve, at the bidding of the king and his nobles, ‘A fast for man and beast, for herd and flock; no food is to be eaten, no water drunk; let man and beast go covered with sackcloth; cry out lustily to the Lord, and forsake, each of you, his sinful life, his wrongful deeds! God may yet relent and pardon, forgo His avenging anger and spare our lives.'”Jonas, 3: 5-9
Naturally, God relents before this public show of repentance and foregoes His plans for the destruction of that city. Meanwhile, Jonas had climbed a hill to watch the destruction of the city, and is not impressed to find that nothing will happen. He had taken refuge under a favoured tree from the hot Assyrian sun, and the tree immediately withered away. Thus did God wish to show Jonas in his chagrin at losing his sunshade, that God’s love for the Ninevites was far greater than Jonas’ love for his favoured tree.
“‘Why,’ said the Lord, ‘what anger is this over an ivy-plant?’ ‘Deadly angry am I,’ Jonas answered, ‘and no marvel either.’ ‘Great pity thou hast,’ the Lord said, ‘for yonder ivy-plant, that was not of thy growing, and no toil cost thee; a plant that springs in a night, and in a night must wither! And what of Nineve? Here is a great city, with a hundred and twenty thousand folk in it, and none of them can tell right from left, all these cattle, too; and may I not spare Nineve?‘”Jonas, 4: 9-11
And that is the Book of Jonas, probably a well-known and beloved story – given Christ’s use of it – but also surprisingly revelatory of God’s care of not one single people and nation, but for a whole world of peoples.