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.