From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Why the big burp?

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 28, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Approaching his local answer-man, a gentleman asked me the other day, “Why doesn’t the Church use readings from the Book of Jonah more often at Mass?”

Trying to play the role, I conjured up a reasonable explanation: The book is an extended story of one of Israel’s legendary characters and doesn’t lend itself to being used in small portions. Its individual parts only make sense in the context of the whole story (which is only four “chapters” long).

After satisfying that honest curiosity, I pursued a bit of my own and reread the book. It truly is a captivating story — one that easily sticks in the mind. Certainly every child in the religious education or Catholic school classroom harbors an image of poor Jonah as he is swallowed by the whale (well, actually the text says a “big fish”) and is burped up onto land. But few remember the full context for the Big Burp.

Jonah had been asked by God to address a prophetic word to the people of Nineveh. Overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task — in addition to the fact that the Ninevites were not of his faith — Jonah had refused to open his mouth. In fact, he jumped on board a ship and headed as far in the other direction. (Sound familiar?) Attacked by wind and sea, the sailors conclude that “the gods” are angry with Jonah so they toss him overboard. That’s where the big fish does its thing and Jonah ends up back on the shore outside Nineveh. This time he reluctantly marches through the city, calling the “pagan” people to repentance. He just knew they would not listen to him. They were just too Godless.

Much to Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites did listen and repented – everyone, from the King himself down to the lowliest peasant in the field. They did have God-fearing bones in their bodies after all. Jonah’s first lesson: don’t judge the hearts of others; just do what you’re supposed to do: speak.

No one knows if the Ninevites lived happily ever after, but the image of their repentance stuck in the religious consciousness of Israel. Evidently the story was read and passed on verbally through the ages, long before it was written down. Jesus himself knew the story and used it as a reference point to call his listeners to a change of heart. To a people who looked for magical signs to prove that God was speaking through him, Jesus promised only the sign of the Ninevites. He was not about to dazzle anyone with a display of divine power; such action would entertain the imagination and even inspire a (false) faith, but it would not lead to life in Gods Kingdom. What Jesus sought was an honesty of heart that produced the kind of genuine conversion which manifested itself in concrete action.

Preaching the Way of God is always a daunting business, whether it be a preacher in the pulpit or a parent seeking to instill solid moral values in their children. The task may seem overwhelming. At times its appears that no one wants to really listen, or that they pay lip service to preacher and even to themselves. Often there are more signs of paganism and atheism in people’s lives than genuine faith and openness to the Way of God. The temptation truly is to remain silent or run in the other direction.

Run as we might, God has a way of getting the point across. In an age which thrives on a false sense of relativism (you have your opinion and I’ll have mine) the moral truth of God’s Way needs to be proclaimed with boldness and clarity. It is the charism of the prophet not to pre-judge people’s willingness to listen, but to call people to a style of living that is wholesome. The power of the prophetic word stands not on the cleverness, intelligence or even holiness of the speaker, but on its appeal to an honest listening to conscience. The prophet does not and cannot make people listen. Conversion of heart at the point of a gun or any other threat evokes immature and fearful response, but not the change of attitude that God seeks - the kind that produces life. The prophets of old — as well as those of today — carry neither guns nor clubs. They only speak the truth of God voiced on their lips. And it needs to be spoken.

By the words they speak and the witness they give, Christians of every gender, age and walk of life are called to serve others as prophets. We begin by seeking on our own part that honesty of heart that calls us to constant purification of action and motive. Those who speak God’s truth must be those who are themselves willing to listen honestly to it. But God’s truth is not necessarily born of a perfect vessel. There will always be enough sin in the life of the prophet to be used as a lame excuse not to listen. But the word must be spoken nevertheless.

We cannot turn and run in the other direction, either out of silence or in avoidance of the situations with which daily life confronts us. God will hound us back to where we belong – back to the streets of Nineveh (or wherever we may live). And much to our surprise, the words we speak and the example we give just may make a difference.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. Harcourt Religion Publishers has issued his book Catholics Believe.) (Download order form in pdf format)

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