The Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jonah is one of the most delightful books of the Bible and is best described as a combination of an action adventure, a comedy and some of the most intense theological reflection in all the Scriptures
The prophet Jonah was one of the most reluctant and successful of the Israelite prophets. Sent by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, the mortal enemies of the Israelites, Jonah resists, going the exact opposite direction of where God wants him to go! Jonah’s sense of justice is that it would be best that God destroy the Ninevites and he would rather not have a part in a plan that might deliver them from God’s wrath.
God has his own plans for Jonah and the Ninevites, and today’s scripture illuminates in a radiant display that God is the great giver of second chances. He sends his prophets to preach repentance, not so that people will fear his destructive wrath, but so that they will know that God wants to save us- he wants to give each and every one of us another chance.
But is it a second chance that we want? There is an adage that is sadly, most of the time true- that we would rather be ruined than changed. Repentance means that we are willing to admit that we are wrong and that we have to live differently, act differently, think differently. This is hard, and many prefer the misery of a sin-filled status quo because the prospect of changing seems so difficult.
But the stakes are very high in our refusal to repent, our refusal to change. God’s wrath does not so much mean that he does something horrible to us to punish us, but rather that we are beset with the consequences of our refusal to repent, our refusal to change. These consequences are usually pretty grim- in our refusal to repent we impose upon ourselves heavy burdens that can crush our souls.
Lent is a privileged opportunity to repent and we should take this opportunity seriously. Waiting to repent until some other time or thinking oneself exempt is really quite dangerous. The opportunity to repent is now. We may not have this opportunity later. Then what?
Repentance is integral to being a disciple.
Repentance is not just a matter of thinking that one can be forgiven or feeling that one is guilty. Repentance happens for us in a Sacrament, a Sacrament called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This Sacrament is not a spiritual option invented by the Church, but it is a gift from the Lord Jesus himself. It is in this Sacrament that we receive ourselves what God proclaimed through Jonah and offered to the Ninevites- the mercy of God and the grace of another chance.
Few seem to have recourse to this Sacrament. Perhaps they seek another sign than the sign that Christ has given to us in the Sacraments of his Church. Many think that God’s grace can be invented out of inner experiences of ideas and feelings, but God’s grace does not come to us in this way- God’s grace comes to us in an encounter with Christ the Lord, who gives himself to us in the Sacraments so that we can know him and serve him. If we seek signs other than the Sacraments Christ has given us, then there is no more appropriate a Gospel passage for us (and any other generation that seeks for itself something other than what Christ offers to us so that we might repent and be saved) then today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke:
“At the judgment, the men of Ninevah will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah, they repented and there is something greater than Jonah here”.
Indeed, there is something greater than Jonah here- the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus given to us in the Sacraments of his Church.