The Prophet Jonah

The tale of Jonah is one of the first we learn in Sunday school as a kid. It’s a story of adventure. Jonah doesn’t listen to God, so he gets swallowed up by the whale. He was afraid, but that’s okay, because he repented and saved the people of Nineveh! We think of the Biblical prophets as keepers of the faith, brave people who proclaim the Word of God. But really… Jonah wasn’t any of that. He was kind of a crummy prophet.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, land of the biggest enemies to Israel. It was a wicked city, serving false gods, set to destruction by the one true God. Jonah didn’t want this job. Who wants to preach to doomed people who will probably spit at and mock some foreign prophet? So Jonah runs away. We like his story, because we relate to this. We don’t want to do the strange and scary things God asks fo us, either. Like Jonah, we think we can run and hide from God.

But Jonah had a responsibility. Being a prophet wasn’t some side gig; it was to be his life, his sacred duty. I don’t know how he came to be a prophet. Maybe his parents dedicated him to God; maybe God called him. Either way, he didn’t embrace it. It wasn’t until he spent a few days in a giant fish that he decided to listen. Despite all our images and paintings of this event, I doubt they were cozy accommodations. I don’t want to speak for Jonah, but I’d rather preach to my sworn enemies than hang out with whatever gunk is found in the belly of a sea creature.

So it’s a happy ending: Jonah finally obeyed God, he prophesied to the people of Nineveh, and they repented! God didn’t destroy them. But we don’t learn the rest of the story in Sunday school. It’s not a happy ending, really. He did his job, but he hated these people. They were the wicked enemies of Israel! He knew God would forgive them if they repented, but Jonah didn’t want that. He wanted them to suffer for their wickedness, and he’d rather die than see them forgiven.

Here’s where it hits too close to home. Here’s why Jesus tells us to “love our enemies:” because we don’t want to. We go out and preach the Gospel, but we preach to people we like. We tell the Good News to our friends, but don’t share it with people we disagree with. Or the friend we had a falling out with. Or strangers who look and act different than we do. We want to punish our enemies for being our enemies, and like Jonah, run away in hopes God will forget that He gave us a job. Jonah probably didn’t march the streets of Nineveh proudly prophesying. He was probably angry, only saying the words because God told him to, just like we promise to pray for those who annoy us and then don’t.

After Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah leaves the first chance he gets. Though God has forgiven these people, Jonah hasn’t. He finds a comfortable spot outside the city, so comfortable that God provides a plant to offer him shade. It’s the only time Jonah is happy in this entire tale—sitting outside the city, in the shade, alone. But his happiness is short-lived, because God destroys the plant, and now Jonah is angry at the plant. He spends a lot of time angrily whining.

And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” —Jonah 4:10–11

That’s how Jonah’s story ends: in bitterness. But even the people of Nineveh, wicked though they were, are God’s people. He offered them a chance to repent, because they didn’t know any better. But Jonah doesn’t understand that. He wants to leave them in their misery, and later, Jonah himself just wants to be in misery, too.

Isn’t this what we do? When something good happens to someone we don’t like, we cross our arms and refuse to be happy for them. Our responsibility isn’t unlike Jonah’s. It’s our duty as children of God to proclaim His name, even—maybe especially—to people we don’t like. Jonah seems like a whiny child, but so are we. God sometimes asks difficult things, but it’s easier to do it than run away. God going to find us, like He did Jonah, and we’re going to do it anyway. If Jonah had listened, the task still would’ve been difficult. He still wouldn’t have wanted to do it, but he made it worse by running. He probably sat pouting in that fish for three days before praying to God to just let him out, fine, he’ll do it. But the resentment had already settled in.

I don’t know what happened to Jonah after God took away his comfortable shade, but I don’t imagine he changed much. Did he ever prophecy again? Did he ever do anything gladly? I don’t know. But I certainly don’t want to be like Jonah.

Constantine’s Sword

There’s a lot we’re not taught about the history of the Jews. Honestly, there’s not a lot we’re taught about history in general. I knew the Crusades were a religious war; the most I know of the Spanish Inquisition is from Monty Python. It wasn’t until recently that I even knew the extent of Roman rule in Israel during Jesus’s time. Sunday-school–aged children like myself wondered why Pilate was even there, or did they cart Jesus back and forth to Rome?

Constantine’s Sword digs into that history, proving the undercurrent of Catholic antisemitism from the Passion to the Holocaust. It’s a dense piece of work. It took me four months to finish. But in the end, I’m left… unsettled. The history of Jew-hatred is enough to unsettle, but that wasn’t the part that stuck out to me. The author, a former Catholic priest, has some issues with the Church he can’t put aside. I wonder what’s truly historically accurate, and what’s colored by his personal bias.

I don’t deny there was some shady business in the Church regarding other religions, especially the Jews. Even the Gospels point at “The Jews” as the murders of Jesus, an accusation that sparked anti-Judaism throughout history. (This ignores the obvious Jewishness of Jesus and his Mother, which is often left out of the story.) Over time, this negative opinion brings worse and worse consequences. Jews are exiled from countries countless times; they’re blamed for the Black Plague; they’re forced into ghettos. I didn’t even know of the Roman ghetto before reading this book. Sometimes popes stand up for them, and sometime they don’t. We like the think the Holocaust was the last straw, but it wasn’t. Antisemitism still runs wild.

But near the end, the author starts to get more opinionated than factual. The last section is titled “A Call for Vatican III,” a conclusion of what the Church should do to make up for its sins and be more inclusive. It includes things I do agree with, like fostering better relations between Catholic and Jews. But a lot of these “suggestions” miss the mark. The right for priests to marry? The church as a democracy? A call for sola scriptura? If this is what you want of church, you’re not Catholic. He completely misses the mark of Catholicism, which makes me question his historical research. What’s fact, and what’s bias? It’s an interesting read for the history of Catholic/Jewish relations, but I’m not sure how much of the details I can believe.

St. Anthony of Padua

We were in Butler to pick up a Blessed Mother statue. I’d like to say it’s a strange story, but it’s not that weird—she needed a new home, and I’ve been wanting to have one. We planned our trip around the Mass times at St. Anthony of Padua, the parish down the street. I loved visiting new and different churches as a recent convert, which I haven’t done as much in the past year.

That’s me!

I’ve had a certain image of Catholic churches in my mind since I was a kid. Not the grandiose kind, though that’s obviously top of the list. But the quiet kind, the white walls and curved ceilings that seem to request contemplation. I don’t know why this screams (or, whispers) “Catholic” for me. I probably visited one parish as a kid that looks like that, so that is the image I’ve held. Or maybe there is something quiet and contemplative about them, which is something we often seek in a hectic life. Either way, this sort of church has a comfortable familiarity.

It was a fairy overcast day, but inside seemed to shine. Filtered light came through the stained glass windows, and people spoke in hushed tones. The nave was small, at least compared to other local parishes, so the pastor was able to greet everyone as he walked up the aisle before Mass. I’m sure we stood out as visitors; it seemed the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else.

Mass itself ended up being short, not even forty minutes. When I returned to my pew after receiving the Eucharist, I was surprised to see the back clock reading only thirty minutes past. But it didn’t feel rushed, despite the record-speed homily and lack of some more common things I’m used to. Instead, its atmosphere matched the structure of the church itself—quiet and contemplative, a refreshing change from the norm.

I did pick up that Blessed Mother statue while in town. There was something comical about driving up to someone’s home, when they’re not there, to steal a box off the porch. I haven’t found a home for her yet, but she’s been well-traveled and could use the rest, too.