The Patron Saint of the Bitter & Angry.
2 Corinthians 9:6-11;
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Holy Martyr Phocas, Bishop of Sinope.
The Holy Prophet Jonah.
Our Venerable Father Jonah, Priest & Father of Theophane the Hymnographer & Theodore the Artist.
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5:19 PM 9/22/2013 — A couple of weeks ago, on the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, I mentioned how our Byzantine Calendar takes us through three different cycles in the course of the year: one for the Sundays, one for the feasts of Our Lord, and one for the saints. And last year, when these readings occurred, I chose to focus on the Apostolic reading in which St. Paul quotes a line from the Book of Proverbs about how God loves a cheerful giver. The Gospel, of course, is the calling of the first disciples, which I've been fond of using as a spring-board to liken the episode to the life and lessons of Blessed John Henry Newman; that's another of those recurring homilies you should be able to give by heart, having heard it enough times. But today I'd like to do what I rarely do, and that's to deviate from the scriptures of the day completely to draw your attention to one of the saints of the day, in this case, the Prophet Jonah.
As you know, the Byzantine Calendar differs from the Latin Calendar in that we still observe the feast days of many Old Testament saints; even so, the Prophet Jonah gets short shrift, probably because his story is one of the shortest books of the bible: 48 verses divided into four very brief chapters. The date of its composition is hard to pin down: anywhere between the Eighth to the First Century BC; but, the style of the Hebrew is the same as that used in the books of Esdras and Nehemiah, which would put it somewhere in the Fifth Century. Equally contested is the question of whether Jonah was a historical person, or whether the book is a parable. There are certainly a lot of Old Testament parables which do not pretend to be historical accounts; but, they occur mostly in the first five books of the Bible, and don't include the kind of biographical data about the subject that we find in Jonah. Our Lord himself refers to Jonah as a real person when, in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, he refers to what he calls “the sign of Jonah.”
The story of Jonah, or course, we all know. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. God commands him to go the city of Nineveh and preach to them because they had become wicked in God's eyes; but, Jonah wants none of it, and instead catches a boat in Tharsis for Joppa, thinking that God can't find him in Joppa. The ship gets caught in a typhoon, and the captain, knowing that Jonah is a Hebrew, pleads with him to call upon his God to save them, but Jonah doesn't want to open up any lines of communication with God; he's trying to run away from God. So, the crew, in a stereotypical fit of seafaring superstition, conclude that the reason they're caught in a typhoon is because they're harboring a fugitive from God, so they throw him overboard. God causes Jonah to be swallowed up by a great fish, in whose belly he languishes for three days and three nights, where he finally breaks down and calls upon God to save him. The fish vomits him up on the beach—ironically, not far from the city of Nineveh—and God, once again, repeats his command for Jonah to go there; and, this time he does. He tells the Ninevites that they have forty days to repent of their evil ways or else God will destroy them; but, it doesn't take forty days; after only one day of preaching, the whole city is converted, and even the king of Nineveh sheds his robes and covers himself in sackcloth to do penance.
And this is where the story gets interesting, because Jonah, after all he had been through, decided that he was entitled to see some fireworks. Now, from the outset, Jonah is portrayed as a bitter and angry man;—we have no idea why—and, while you'd think that his experience in the belly of the fish would have cured him of that and made him a little more humble, it didn't. He tries to tell God that the reason he ran away in the first place was because he suspected all along that God was a soft touch and wasn't going to follow through on his threat against the city regardless. He completely glosses over the fact that the Ninevites made a very dramatic repentance. He sits down under a tree where he can see the city to see if God will destroy it after all; and, when it isn't destroyed, he wants to die. God reaches out to Jonah and wants to dialog about it, but Jonah refuses to talk to him; and, that's where the book ends.
It's an odd story, and its abrupt ending causes us to want to ask some questions, such as why Jonah feels the way he does at the end. There might be a historical reason: Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire, which was a long-time enemy of Israel. Isaiah denounced Assyria as “the rod of God's anger” (10:5) and “the overwhelming scourge” (28:15); Jeremiah warned his people about the powerful pagan foe (2:18,36 & 50:17f); the prophets Hosea, Micah and Nahum all reminded the Israelites about this bitter enemy of God's people; so, maybe Jonah was angry that God would even give the Ninevites a chance to repent.
When I was in the seminary there was one faculty member who was very liberal, and who had set himself to the task of making sure that any seminarian who gave evidence of being traditional never become a priest. He never succeeded because it was a conservative seminary and he was the token liberal, so no one really listened to him. And each year we would have to sit down with each priest on the faculty and go through an evaluation process; but, for him, the evaluation was just a matter of going through the motions, because he had already decided, before the evaluation even began, that you were no good. Two years after I was ordained he left the priesthood. I don't think it was because I was ordained; it was probably because he was, like Jonah, a bitter and angry man by nature, and those kinds of people do not make good priests. If you've ever worked for someone like that, you may have had a similar experience.
The story of Jonah is, of course, a lesson about God's mercy; but, there's more to it than that. Jonah is not an uncommon type of person. He's angry at the world, and for reasons that may or may not make sense to anyone but him. And, while he goes through the motions, giving lip-service to the idea that he wants things to change, in reality, he doesn't; because, if things were to change, he would have nothing more to be angry about, and wouldn't know what to do with himself. And, as distasteful as it sounds, there are times when we're all tempted to go down that acrimonious road. Maybe we're older now, and most of our friends are gone, and we feel that our families don't pay enough attention to us; our children have families of their own now, and we're no longer the center of their attention. Things are not what they used to be: the neighborhood has changed, the parish has changed, nothing is familiar anymore, coupled with all the usual aches and pains that come with growing old, and all the things we used to be able to do that we can't anymore.
There is a remedy to all this, of course, and that's prayer. That is what I think is the real message of the Book of Jonah. It ends on a low note because Jonah, in his bitterness, cuts off his dialog with God. It would be nice to have the story end up a redemption story, like the Book of Job: bad things happen to Job just like they do to Jonah, but Job never stops praying; and, because he never stops praying, he and God are reconciled. Both books are very short, they're both very similar, but they end in completely different ways; and, there's a reason why it's important that the Book of Jonah end the way it does. Life is often disappointing, and how we respond to that disappointment is crucial. In the midst of all his tragedies, Job never stopped praying, never stopped trusting that God would, somehow, make everything alright in the end, which he did. Jonah did stop praying and, as a result, his anger became his only companion. In the end, that was all he had left. The choice is really up to us.