In the Belly of the Whale: Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet

In the Belly of the Whale: Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet

Ocean sailing ship in distress, struggling to stay afloat, in a heavy storm with big waves and lightning, 3d render painting

in the belly of the whale
Why not me symbol. Businessman turns a cube and changes words why me to why not. Beautiful orange background. Business and why not me concept. Copy space.

In the Belly of the Whale: Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet.

We’ve all been there.

Alone.

In the dark.

Terrified.

In the belly of the whale: Jonah, the reluctant prophet.

Just four chapters long, the book of Jonah seems at first to be just another fantastic Bible story.

Surely a wild tale, of course it’s allegory, right?

And yet, Jesus Himself speaks about Jonah, calling him an “early preacher!”

A fact that is both consoling and terrifying- I’ll return to this comment in a bit, first, some background.

38 Then some of the teachers of the Law and the proud religious law-keepers said to Jesus, “Teacher, we would like to have you do something special for us to see.” 39 He said to them, “The sinful people of this day look for something special to see. There will be nothing special to see but the powerful works of the early preacher Jonah. 40 Jonah was three days and three nights in the stomach of a big fish. The Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the grave also. 41 The men of the city of Nineveh will stand up with the people of this day on the day men stand before God. Those men will say these people are guilty because the men of Nineveh were sorry for their sins and turned from them when Jonah preached. And see, Someone greater than Jonah is here!

Matthew 12

Whether or not we consider this, or any story in the Bible as real,

none of us can help seeing ourselves reflected by Jonah’s words and actions.

  • Jonah doesn’t just run a few miles to get away from the Lord’s command to “Get up and go!,” he persuades the ship captain to accept him as passenger on their voyage to Tarshish (modern day Cadiz, Spain, a 2000 mile journey)- paying triple the normal fee for passage.
  • During the ensuing horrific storm which terrifies all the sailers, Jonah sleeps. [recalling Christ asleep on a pillow in the midst of a temptest]
  • Finally, Jonah confesses that the storm is in him-and is tossed into the belly of the whale
  • Grudgingly, he does what the Lord commands, goes to the wicked city of Ninevah and within just a day,
  • The King and the people repent and the Lord “renounces His Judgement. He does not carry it out.”
  • Is Jonah happy for the deliverance of the Assyrians?
  • Quite the contrary, he’s angry and depressed.

O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

4:3.Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

4:4.The LORD replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?

The Book of Jonah
Consoling yet terrifying?

Well…yeah!

Think for a moment or twenty about your life, the events and people in it-especially those without whom you’d not be…you.

Were there not times you ran as fast as you could in the opposite direction? Only to find yourself back in the same place?

At first we chuckle at Jonah’s obstinance. But pondering him further, our smiles fade as we realize the reason for his stubborness: Jonah resents the “other.”

Feels them unworthy of the Gift he and the nation of Israel has. Through Jonah, the sun shines mercilessly on our Christian tendency to exclude, on our facile judgements of others and thinking the ‘other’ less deserving of the mercy of God. Of our sense of superiority and moral indignation.

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Volumes have been written on the Hebrew prophet Jonah. One of the more famed is Father Mapple’s in Melville’s Moby Dick. Worth a quick read if only to recall Melville’s delicious prose.

Thomas Merton wrote an entire book about these four brief chapters in the Bible.

In the preface to his book, The Sign of Jonas, Merton wrote:

“The sign Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was “the sign of Jonas, the prophet-that is the sign of His own Resurrection….But I feel that my life, my very being is sealed with this great sign because like Jonas himself I feel myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

In a lovely little book by Fr. Paul Murray, A Journey With Jonah, Murray includes a remark from Robert Frost. Frost’s comments embody perfectly the consolation and the terror I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. In a reply to an interviewer about his verse/poem, Masque of Mercy, Frost said:

“I noticed the first time in the world’s history when mercy is entirely the subject is in Jonah…Jonah is told to go and prophesy against the city- and he knows God will let him down. He can’t trust God to be anything but merciful. You can trust God to be anything but unmerciful. So he ran away and- got into a whale. That’s the point of that and nobody notices it. They miss it.”

Where’s the consolation?

Yes, where indeed…it hides in the cross, humility, conversion.

In the Afterword to A Journey with Jonah, Fr. Murray includes a lectio divina given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger given in 2003. The then Cardinal Ratzinger calls his meditation on Jonah, God Took Pity. In his quintessentially scholarly piece, Pope Benedict writes that Jonah is a parable. One where the we can see both the present and the future. Because, “it is only in the light of the future- ultimately in that light from God-that the present can be understood…this parable is consequently a prophecy.”

It is a lengthy meditation and one worth reflection on in its entirety. Unfortunately I could find no link for you to read it other than in A Journey with Jonah.

The then Ratzinger exhorts “

The key words from the text are conversion…’ All shall turn from their evil ways…’conversion is not beautiful and complete [like the Jerusulem Temple] it is never finished…Day after day I must combat my laziness and habits…prejudices against my neighbor…day after day I must combat cowardice, conformism, and bullying…I must learn from the Church and let myself be led by Her….

A Journey with Jonah
Ocean sailing ship in distress, struggling to stay afloat, in a heavy storm with big waves and lightning, 3d render painting

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