Making a Splash?

Who does not love the story of Jonah? Every detail is perfect, with a rich vein of humorous exaggeration throughout. We’re told it took three days to cross the city of Nineveh, so this is conversion on a vast scale. Everyone, even the animals (!), put on sackcloth as as sign of repentance and joined in the general fast. Jonah himself comes in for some gentle teasing from the Lord, but it is clear he was an effective speaker and won the hearts of his listeners. Despite a regrettable tendency to run away and get cross when things didn’t turn out as he wanted, he was, ultimately, a success. We remember Jonah.

Jesus tells the crowds that ‘someone greater than Jonah is here’ but one wonders whether his rhetoric made as great an impression as Jonah’s is said to have done. Throughout the gospels we see him experiencing misunderstandings, opposition, and, ultimately, a kind of failure: death on the cross. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the failure was no failure at all; but at the time Jesus was not a big success. We remember Jesus, but we are conscious of the contradictions and the suffering that marked his triumph. The resurrection comes out of a dark place, darker than any whale’s belly.

And what of us? Do we want to make a splash, be celebrity saints, as it were? Someone once said rather cruelly of Thomas Merton that he was the kind of hermit who needed a neon sign outside his hermitage. We can be a little like that, wanting our good deeds to be noticed, especially during Lent, when we are trying harder to live holy lives. We can want to be remembered, have our fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but ideally without much hardship or contradiction. We forget that we are called to be followers of the Lord. We can never be holy except he makes us so, and that will always involve an experience of failure and, at times, discouragement. Let us pray for the grace to meet the challenge we face.


11 thoughts on “Making a Splash?”

  1. It is a powerful thing to compare Jesus to Jonah, because Jesus didn’t try to avoid his ministry, despite the troubles you describe, only during his passion in the Garden did he ask his Father to take away what was to happen, but he did acknowledge at the same time that his Father’s will, would be done.

    Jonah had an avoidance strategy, which involved going in the opposite direction as fast as he could, unwilling to take on the burden of the tasks given him. That he eventually succumbed to God’s will, says something to us.

    God gives each of us a Cross to bear, as we follow his son, that cross will be different for each of us, as we observe from afar the suffering of persecuted Christians across the globe. Whereas, we in the west don’t have to worry about that, apart from combatting secularists determined to put their world view as the ideals that we should be living by.

    I find that the privilege that we have to express our faith is something not to be taken for granted. We need to be in solidarity will all people of faith and act as much as we can to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the persecuted and marginalised. Social justice is something that we cannot ignore, it has to be at the forefront of our prayer and action, in public, standing alongside those in need as witnesses to the Good News, and hopefully, humbly without self projection as the aim of our public ministry.

    Subordinating ourselves but in “Passionate Humility” as Stephen Cherry described a few years ago, has to be central to how we live out the Good News, to attract those who are seeking, to encourage their exploration and to welcome them without fear or favour into the companionship and discipleship, which will form and equip them to serve the Lord.

    I pray for the ability to project and witness in this way, in hope that offers will want to share and to work to make God’s Kingdom, real for everyone. No running away like Jonah.

    • Thank you, Ernie, but I’m not sure that I agree with everything you’ve said in your comment about Christian imperatives — or Jonah. I’m always a bit reluctant to talk about the crosses we bear: it is easy to exaggerate. Did Jesus accept his mission without any hesitation? I think he struggled at times, not only on the cross. He grew in understanding that his mission was not only to the lost sheep of Israel (cf the gospel of the Syro-Phoenician Woman). In making the comparison with Jonah, I think he was asking us to do some seriously upsetting thinking, don’t you?

  2. I too believe Jesus struggled. At the age of 12 when he was missing, teaching in the temple leaving his parents fraught, but he still obeyed them and went home. He was troubled too in the 40 days before he began his mission. We have 3 recorded temptations, but in 40 days I expect he was tempted each and every day to run away, just as Jonah did before him and Peter afterwards.

  3. Does Jesus love us less if we like Jonah, don’t find the course of faith straightforward? Aren’t both paths towards faith as valid, the straightforward unwavering journey straight to it, and the wavy I’m sure now I’m not I’m sure journey too?
    Sometimes the examination within ourselves, difficult and painful, makes the end result, faith in Jesus Christ, sweeter.

    Just some thoughts.

  4. The story of Jonah is usually seen as the story of a prophet who ran away (disobeyed) but then repented and did a successful job. But the story’s much odder and more complex than that.
    1. Jonah went only part of the way into Nineveh, as though unwilling to go to the centre to proclaim his message.
    2. Jonah’s message was uncharacteristically short, but he added something (about a window of time before they had to repent), which hadn’t been in God’s original message. Why?
    3. Like the mariners, and the winds, and the “great fish”, all the people of Nineveh immediately hear and obey God’s word. Jonah, the professional man of God is the exception.
    4. And why did Jonah hesitate? This is the crux of that difficult fourth chapter that most people forget about. The author leads us to assume that Jonah was afraid to go to Nineveh, “that great city” – afraid because the evil people there would attack him. That seems likely, but we discover in the end that it was not the reason. Jonah knew that if he preached, then they would repent. And then where would Jonah be? Jonah is that kind of religious person who needs the “other”, the enemy, all those bad people, to set himself up against as the righteous one. He needs that us/them opposition to validate his own position as being on the righteous side. If everyone becomes righteous, how will he define himself?
    The author sees this exclusivist tendency in his religion and satirises it here with the foolish character of Jonah.
    Like Jesus and so many others, we can pick out specific moments from a story and see them as emblems of something larger, but it doesn’t hurt also to see the wider context. I hope I haven’t intruded too much with this. (Further intrustion: if anyone wants to hear a little more, with some good music, here’s the link to a radio show I did on Jonah:

    • Thank you, Robert-Louis. I wasn’t principally writing about the Book of Jonah, as I expect you realised, but you are not alone in explaining the book to me and you have had the kindness to do so more briefly than most, for which, I heap blessings on you!

      • Thank you for the heaped blessings, measure upon measure.

        I hesitated to say all that, but my love for this book of Jonah led me on a bit.

        There’s always that discrepancy between the way Jesus and others use Scripture, taking one image out of it (e.g., the “sign of Jonah”) as a “type” of a moral truth – between that and the more literary way of seeing the details in context, the way we were trained in literature lectures. But why reject one way in favour of the other? Let’s rejoice that we can have both and be no losers.

  5. It was the psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Zilboorg who told Thomas Merton, “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying ‘HERMIT.'” Zilboorg was cooperating with Merton’s Abbot James Fox in order to control Merton. Merton wanted to leave the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani to join another religious community. Abbot Fox blocked his efforts and Merton remained obedient.

    After Merton died mysteriously in 1968, the Abbey of Gethsemani has continued to state that Merton accidentally killed himself. In 2018, “The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation,” was published and it was dedicated to the four Benedictines who first discovered Merton’s body. These Benedictines took photographs of the suspicious scene, preserved the official Thai death documents, and wrote letters. Their evidence, which was ignored for 50 years, proves that the accidental electrocution story is not true.

    • Thank you. I was aware of the source of the Merton remark but he was not the subject of my post. When I was D. Hildelith’s underling in the Stanbrook Abbey Press, she gave me the correspondence between her and Merton to read and I came to much the same conclusion about him as she did. As to his death, that takes us way beyond the scope of my post but I think there’s still a question mark there.

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