A Meditation on Sin’s Effects and God’s Mercy in the Story of Jonah

100713In daily Mass these next few days we are reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Of all the prophets Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant, and his struggle with sin is not hidden. In the passage from Monday’s reading we see something of a portrait on sin and also the love of God for sinners. Lets look at the passage and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance – This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy, means to openly and boldly resist what one is told to do. It also indicates a lack of faith since it comes from the Latin “dis “against” + fidere “believe”. Hence, Jonah is not just insubordinate, he is unbelieving, he lacks trust.

His scoffing and defiant attitude likely results from hatred, or excessive nationalism. Nineveh was the capital of the Syria, the mortal enemies of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness, they will grow stronger. Rather than trust God, he brazenly disobeys and foolishly thinks he can outrun God.

II. Distance – He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline along modern-day Spain. Thus, in order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah flees some 1500 miles out of God’s will. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money to try and accomplish the fleeing. Indeed, many people spend lots of money, and go miles out of their way to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive, and many seem quite willing to pay.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous, and costly. But yet, like Jonah, many line up to pay the price and take the long painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? Probably about 80%, if not more. So much suffering, so much cost, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. Bottom line; pardon the financial pun, sinful choices are usually costly.

III. Disturbance – The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance puts him and others headlong into a storm that, as we will see, grows ever deeper and involves others. Here too, the teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances and troubles. And as our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces more powerful.

It will be noted how Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important teaching that in our sin, in our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life, but into the lives of others we know and love. What we do, or fail to do affects others.

The Mariners fearing for their life, also lose wealth, and suffer great losses throwing the cargo overboard, on account of Jonah sinfulness.

And so too in our own culture, how much pain is caused, how much loss is experienced from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness, and sexual misbehavior, so many of our families are in the shredder, there is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that comes from broken families or malformed families. It is of course the children who, above all, feel the pain and injustice of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings besides, caused by our greed, addiction our lack of forgiveness, our pride, impatience, lack of charity, and so forth. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us, but others around us.

No one is merely an individual, we are members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and the cause of grief to others around him. So too can we become when we defiantly indulge sinfulness

IV. Delirium – Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

And yet, while all these storms (caused by him) are raging about him, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a kind of moral sleep, blissfully talking about their rights and that what they do is “nobody else’s business” etc. And yet all the while, the storm winds buffet, and others suffer from what they do, and so easily they remain morally asleep, unaware, inconsiderate, and locked in self-deception and rationalizations.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins” where supposedly nobone gets hurt. Those who are morally alert do not say these sorts of things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral sleep, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble, and all the while they mutter on in a immoral sleep about their right to do what they please.

V. Dressing Down – The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!– They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for the prophet, when those he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes a pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?!” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your illusions and yourself justifying slogans, and have a look at what’s really going on. Wake up!

Next they say to him, “pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours, but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up, look at what you’re doing, see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us, and turn back to God, less we all perish!

VI. Despair – They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.

Jonah having been dressed down, is beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more of a worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10) And thus, Jonah, somewhat like Judas, and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, he says to them “Kill me, I do not deserve to live.” But this is not repentance, it is despair.

VII. Dignity – still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

And yet, surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least as a first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah, or any sinner, does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen, deserve our love, and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, perhaps to return crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to try to correct in love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. The first instinct, should always be to respect the dignity of even great sinners, to strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance – Then they cried to the LORD: “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit. ”Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord, sensing somehow His just verdict, yet fearing their own judgment in this regard, and asking mercy.

It used to be that, in the average American courtroom when someone did finally have to be sentenced to prison or worse, the judge would often say, “May God have mercy on your soul.” And thus, even in the said situations where we can do little but remove people from their ability to harm others, usually through incarceration, we ought to do so with a sober appreciation of their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

And God does deliver Jonah. After his whale of a ride, in which Jonah must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, God finally delivers him right back to the shore of Joppa, where it all began.

IX. Determination – Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. (Jonah 3:1-3)

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He’s the God of the second chance. Thank you Lord for your grace and your mercy. And he remembers our sins no more. In effect God says to Jonah, ” Now where were we?”

Here’s the Peccavimus from the Oratorio “Jonas” by Carissimi

15 Replies to “A Meditation on Sin’s Effects and God’s Mercy in the Story of Jonah”

  1. The Jonah who finally went to Nineveh was not the same man who had earlier sought to run away. The tale pointedly draws attention to the fact that all the other crew and passengers are pagans. Yet they are not bad fellows. They are not zealots. They have natural piety and fear of the Lord. They know the natural law. And they are open to conversion. In the midst of the storm-tossed drama, Jonah takes in all of this and has something to ponder in the belly of the whale. Indeed, he is very slow to figure it all out because his presupposition was so off target. Jonah learns at the end that his call was to prophesy not unto destruction, but to conversion — not only that of the heathen Ninevites, but also his own.

    In a sense Jonah can be any one of us, but in another, I think there’s Christological significance in the fact that he is the only non-pagan in the story.

  2. Isaiah knew that the people wouldn’t repent and he preached to them willingly; Jonah knew that the people would repent and he preached to them unwillingly. Sort of funny. To me, the Book of Jonah, along with the Book of Tobit, has the most fairy tale or childlike quality to it of all the books in in the bible, and yet, Jesus refers to it with respect to His suffering and death.

  3. “The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous…” I think this is a very important lesson that I have tried to impart on to my boys. Simply that being honest and truthful requires SO much less effort than deception. Lies and trying to escape consequences of our actions just leads to more and more stress — lies and further deception.

  4. Mea Culpa! I see myself in this story many years ago. I thank God and my fellowman for not giving up on me.
    Thank you for this poignant reflection.

  5. In Jonah I find myself… I remember beginning a project which was not in line with God’s will… when interrupted, I cried my heart out for loosing it… yet as I cried, I had found that my tears were turning into not so much tears of sadness and disappointment, but tears of deep regret that I did not seek out God’s will and then did not accept God’s intervention, then did not do all these things with a courageous, and charitable heart, with deep love for God… the contrition tears finally settled my spirit, all due to God’s loving Hand, in the Person of Jesus in the Eucharist….

    many blessings

  6. The tendency to enjoy the forbidden pleasures , offered by the enemy, being the root of the wrong and foolish sinful choices we make and thus , in turn is what need to be repented for too .

    Seems Jonah did ( ? reluctantly ) do what he was told to do , with great results , yet , he himsef could not let go of the enemy given pleasure of hatred and desire to see destruction , towards those he considered as enemies !

    Thus , when the people are spared , Jonah is angry , instead of being able to rejoice with The Lord !

    Israel too kept doing what they thought they had been asked to do , to prepare for the Messiah , but could not let go of deep hatreds /pride , instead , taking pleasure , in the enemy offered pride in being a people of law , yet devoid of truths of deeper aspects of mercy and dignity /holiness for humans , thus , not able to believe that The Lord could come as a human , bringing salvation to all !
    May The Lord have mercy on us , to help us to see all areas , where we too might be in the wrong , pagan and enemy contolled pleausre boat , so that we too can repent , allowing the Whale of His mercy , to swallow up our debts !

  7. Thank you Fr. Pope. I can appreciate the story much better when seen from your analysis and explanation. I hope to read more of your reflections on other bible stories.

  8. There is an error in the 3rd paragraph. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, not Syria. The Assyrians, a much maligned people, to this very day, were converted to Christianity during the 1st century A.D by Mar Toma (St. Thomas). Today we do not have a country, although our people still live in the Nineveh province and the northern region of Iraq. Our language is Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke. We have been dispersed throughout the world due in large part to persecutions and oppression during the two World Wars and the Gulf wars. During the 1st World War the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church was assassinated along with three hundred of his bodyguards in an ambush by the Kurds under the pretext of a peaceful meeting. The Church is currently in the process of reuniting with the Catholic Church after being separated as a result of the Nestorian controversy. Many Assyrians are still united with Rome in the Chaldean Church. Assyrians have communities scattered throughout the world and are working to reestablish a sovereign state in their homeland.

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