Our foray into the Book of the Prophet Jonah continues in today's first reading from the Lectionary for Mass, Cycle I. I daresay, most people know the story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish (whale), and there are some who will be able to identify his mission to Nineveh. However, the rest of the story is really very instructional.
When the citizens of Nineveh respond to Jonah's preaching by practicing penance and by repenting of their sins, God relents in the punishment that had been threatened. Jonah is less than pleased about this turn of events. However, he, like so many of us, resorts to denying his own culpability in refusing to obey the Lord's bidding at first. Instead he makes excuses: He prayed to the LORD, "O Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. (Jonah 4:2) Whether this was in Jonah's mind or not when he fled to the West after hearing God's call is not really the issue. Quoting the words from the covenant made between God and Moses on Sinai, Jonah reveals something that may not be all that evident to the rest of us as we read the Hebrew Scriptures; namely, Jonah (and presumably, all of Israel,) knew that God was not vengeful, knew that God was solicitous for all of creation, not just the children of Israel. God loves and cares for all people, even those who may not recognize God as the supreme deity.
As the conversation between God and Jonah unfolds, God calls Jonah to recognize who he is and who God is. Jonah is the servant; God is the master. Jonah is not the judge; that is God's role. Jonah doesn't get to decide how God deals with sinners. To paraphrase a quote that has been much used in the media these days, "Who is he to judge?" God is in charge.
Most of us recognize that we are in need of God's mercy. Most of us express sorrow for our sins. Another issue that this story raises is the impetus for that sense of sorrow and repentance. It is important to realize that our inclination to repent of our sins comes from God. It is God's call that awakens a sense of remorse in our minds. It is God's constant seeking for the lost sheep that calls us home. Sorrow for sin is just one more of God's gifts. The Ninevites responded to that gift and used it to their advantage. So while Jonah may have been hoping for the destruction of Israel's enemy, God was at work prompting their conversion. This is part of the very nature of who God is.