The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USCCB approved.
The irony of the story of Jonah and the Ninevites strikes the heart of its reader. The city of Nineveh is so great and prosperous that it takes three days to walk across. Yet, the whole city of Nineveh, and especially its powerful king, receives Jonah’s message with the humility and contrition necessary for the metanoia (or conversion) that brings about salvation. Most striking is the city’s response in relation to the simplicity of Jonah’s preaching. It is clearly not Jonah’s preaching that strikes the heart of the people of Nineveh. One even gets the sense that Jonah is phoning it in. His preaching is neither eloquent nor profound. It is hardly convincing, let alone moving. It is not Jonah’s preaching that leads to the city’s change of heart; It is their personal encounter with the “Word of the Lord” that they encounter through Jonah.
In the Gospel passage from today’s Mass (Luke 11:29-32), Jesus teaches us that this generation will not receive a sign. But, we are also told that we have received something far greater than Jonah in the person of Jesus Christ. A sign is something which points and directs toward another reality. In Christ, we have received the fullness of the reality of God’s Word itself. This personal encounter is God’s gift that continually brings about the turning of our hearts and minds to God, to which no mere sign could ever bring us.
—Tom Weiler is a teacher in the department of Religious Studies and the moderator of Club Vinyl at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago.