Jonah’s lesson for the Vatican Synod

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Jonah as portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

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Jonah as portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Jonah as portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Jonah as portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Yom Kippur is over, and that means the Jewish community has had another opportunity to reflect on the Book of Jonah, which is read in synagogue in the late afternoon. The book is all about repentance, and as the Day of Atonement draws to an end, it’s comforting to hear about God’s mercy to people who repent their sins.

The people in question are the inhabitants of Nineveh, non-Jews who don sackcloth and fast after being warned by the Hebrew prophet Jonah that their city is going to be destroyed. And because they turn away from evil — “from the violence that is in their hands” — God himself repents of the violence he had planned to do to them.

Jonah, however, is enraged, and goes so far as to make God’s mercy the reason for his initial decision to disobey God’s command to warn the Ninevites: “I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”

Maybe Jonah didn’t want Ninevah spared because it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the great enemy of Israel. Or, as the 12-century rabbinic authority Rashi contends, he was concerned that the NInevites would consider him a false prophet when the predicted destruction didn’t come. No matter how you slice it, Jonah, God’s messenger, stands in opposition to God’s mercy.

Pope Francis, who has made mercy the centerpiece of his papacy, sees him as an exemplar of hypocritical religious leaders who exhibit “an attitude of pure piety” even as they disregard “poor people.” This he calls “the Jonah Syndrome.” On Saturday, looking to the synod on the family that opened this morning, he issued another one of his warnings for them not to fall victim to it.

Yes, in the Gospel there is salvation which fulfills the most profound needs of man! Of this salvation – work of God’s mercy and grace – as a Church, we are sign and instrument, a living and effective sacrament.

If it were not so, our building would remain only a house of cards, and pastors would be reduced to clerics of state, on whose lips the people would search in vain for the freshness and “smell of the Gospel.”

At Mass Sunday morning, he was at it again, warning against the greed and pride and hypocrisy that can impel church leaders to make of the Lord’s vineyard “what they want, and remove God from the possibilities of realizing his dream for the people he has chosen.”

At the end of the Book of Jonah, God again infuriates the prophet by killing off a plant that had provided him with much needed shade. You pitied the plant, God says, which you didn’t make grow, and which came up in a night and perished in a night. “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than 150 thousand people who don’t know their left hand from their right, and also many cattle?”

The answer seems obvious, but because the book ends right there, we don’t know whether Jonah learned God’s lesson of mercy. We’ll see in due course if the bishops have learned the pope’s.

  • Karla

    Jonah did learn the lesson of the Lords mercy and Grace. Grace allows us to
    Repent but many today think it allows them to sin. Big difference! Bible says
    we must Repent so people who think they can just say/do whatever then still
    go to heaven are in for a very rude awakening on judgment day! Many people
    today only want to talk about abortion or gay marriage but the Bible lists in
    1 Corinthians 6:9-12 bein drunk/drunkards,thieves,slanderers/liars,swindlers,
    sexually immoral,idolaters,adulterers,greedy/coveters along with homosexuals
    as people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven! All sin is bad! The wine
    Jesus made was new wine/diluted/from the fruit of the vine and the Bible
    says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people who get drunk with/on wine
    are also wrong/go to hell. Bible says Repent or perish! We must Repent!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Well written Karla
    Our culture –instead of repenting–embraces every evil or abomination as it comes down the road. And too many who should know better let themselves be used as facilitators of sin while avoiding any call to genuine repentence.

  • Karla

    Deacon John-Amen and well said!

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, R.N.

    The reason so many in churches have no mercy is because they think they’re members of an exclusive club. The same thing happened during Jesus’ time which He condemned. Read the Gospels!

    Faith should inspire us to do good deeds for the love of God and neighbor. If it doesn’t, it’s nonexistent!

  • Kevan Scott

    The church, whether Catholic or Protestant, should heed the words of Pope Francis. But, will they? That is the question here that I do not have an answer to. I can’t agree with the words of the Pope or your blog more but it is the continued actions of the American mainline Catholic and Protestant churches in general that have driven me away from any church. I very rarely see any church, at least in my general area of the country doing anything at all that would attract me to it. As a blind person, much more often than not, I have been shunned and even told that my lack of faith in healing is the cause of my continued blindness. With comments like that, plus being in the center of the Christian right wing churches here, I hear on an almost daily basis about some rejecttion of the poor, homeless or other such nonsense from supposed Christians. With rejection and blame of the poor for being poor, why would I or the poor in general even consider stepping inside of any church? But, I’m at least encouraged by the words of a Christian leader like the Pope saying what he said. Now, for the church to heed those words. As for me, I know I’m very angry and it will take much time as it has been for some time now, for me to heal from the words and rejection of myself by some very unthinking and uncaring Christians. Perhaps one day….

  • Karla

    Kevan Scott-I’m sorry that you were hurt by some so called “Christians” but
    know that you are loved by Christ and maybe they weren’t really Christians
    or they were very immature. Bible says it’s better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man and that’s Psalm 118:8 which is the exact middle of the
    Bible so that should tell you that people will always let you down but you
    are loved by Christ so don’t let the actions of immature people turn you off.

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  • suzieQ

    Sister Geraldine: Speaking as a regular church-goer, I do not believe I am among the merciless of whom you speak. Be very careful. Please do not make it sound as though all, or even many, church-goers are merciless. That simple, formulaic pronouncement causes further polarization among Catholics who accept its premise without discernment.

    So many of the parishioners with which I rub elbows each and every Sunday have their sleeves rolled up and are very much busy performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Great people, they give great hope by the example with which they live their lives. They truly inspire me! Perhaps our experiences are just different; so much so, that I honestly couldn’t agree with you that “…so many in churches have no mercy…” On everything else you say, I heartily agree. Faith without works…

  • Art

    @ Kevan… “The church, whether Catholic or Protestant, should heed the words of Pope Francis.” Pope Francis is a man, just like you; why heed the words of a man when we have a living God? Read the book of Hebrews and see what a true High Priest is doing for you right now! Romans 9:26 And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God. and again… Hebrews 3:12 Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.