Let me attempt a quick summary of the meaning and purpose of the book of Jonah. As I said the other day, it was a period in Jewish history when God’s people were turned in upon themselves and thought that God loved only them and they prayed for the destruction of their enemies. At Yahweh’s direction, Jonah is sent to warn the Ninevites that they will be destroyed unless they convert their faith in Yahweh. Jonah likes the idea of their pending destruction but was very angry and disappointed when it did not come about. He sat outside the city walls where a scorching sun burnt him badly. God caused a wonderful shade tree to grow up overnight but on the second day it withered. Again, Jonah is furious. It is then that Yahweh speaks to Jonah with the real message of the book.
“Are you only upset about a castor oil plant which cost you no labor, which you did not make grow and which sprouted in a night and has perished in a night and am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city in which live more than 120,000 people… to say nothing of all the animals?”
That is the wonderful message of Jonah – God’s love for all people.
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On the weekend blog, I touched very briefly on Sunday’s excerpt from the book of Jonah and I began an all too brief introduction on a complicated issue – how to read the bible intelligently in order to get the maximum benefit from it. My point the other day was that while everyone knows about Jonah and the whale, very few of us know what really the purpose of the message is and what its meaning is.
We know nothing about the prophet Jonah but the majority of Scripture scholars date the book between the fourth and second centuries BC. It was written at a time in the post-exilic period; namely, after the Jews had returned from their enslavement in Babylon. It was an age when the Israelites were tempted to hope more for the destruction of their enemies than for their salvation. The author of this book conveys a message about the extent of the Lord’s mercy not just for the Jews, but for the whole human family. It is a message that God’s people needed at the time that it was written and it is a message that all of us need today. Jonah is a tremendous gift to us not just as a teaching tool, but as conveying an extraordinarily important component of the Christian message.
God loves the human family!
More later about Jonah.
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January 22nd, 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The first reading today is one of my very favorite excerpts from the Old Testament. The reason I say that is because it provides an excellent tool for teaching people how to read the bible. Put a hundred people in a room together and ask them how many have ever heard of the book of Jonah. Virtually, all of them will raise their hands. Ask a second question. What is the book of Jonah about? What is its message? Ninety-nine out of one hundred will quickly tell you that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. They are wrong but their reaction provides a marvelous opportunity to teach something about reading Sacred Scriptures.
The bible is a series of small booklets, written over centuries, in various literary forms. This is tremendously important and it is necessary to understand this if you are going to read the bible intelligently.
Take a look at your morning newspaper. You instinctively know that what is printed on the first page is different from what is printed on the editorial page. You also recognize that the comic strips and the “want ads” are a different literary form designed to accomplish specific goals and it works very well for us. The same is true of the bible. Those many booklets that make the bible have been written in various literary forms, in different times and to accomplish different goals. The book of Jonah is not a catalogue for National Geographic. It is a message about God’s love for the whole human family.
More on that on Monday.
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