“Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh, not of Sodom”, wrote St. Gregory of Nazianzus, commenting on the story of the prophet Jonah. “Let us amend our wickedness, lest we be consumed with it. Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah, lest we be overwhelmed by fire and brimstone.”
Such language isn’t common or popular. After all, how can we say God is love and full of mercy if we talk in such a way? As one angry atheist wrote to me years ago, “Why should I believe in a God who delights in throwing people into the flames of hell?”
Well, you shouldn’t. And, in fact, today’s readings reveal that God not only loves mankind, he makes provision for our salvation. The readings, notes Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar in Light of the Word (Ignatius Press, 1993), “all emphasize the urgency of conversion, for there is no time for anything else.”
That phrase—“there is no time for anything else”—can be understood in two complimentary ways. First, time is short; it is transitory by nature, and our natural bodies will eventually expire and then we’ll face life after time. This is emphasized in the message taken by Jonah to the Assyrians: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Saint Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, is equally insistent: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.” And our Lord, preaching in Galilee, declared, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Secondly, since time is short and the time is at hand, our time should be dedicated to what is lasting, eternal, and indestructible. “Time is short”, quipped Cardinal John Henry Newman, “eternity is long.” The perennial temptation is to flee the relentless march of time by immersing ourselves in time-bound pleasures, activities, and distractions. These can be sinful, such as the wickedness practiced by the Ninevites, or be good things turned into the ultimate good, such as work, recreation, and relationships.
This is the point made by Paul, who didn’t intend to dismiss the worth of marriage or work, but was exhorting Christians to see and understand them in the light of the eschaton—the end of time and the full revelation of God’s glory and promises. “In and of itself”, noted von Balthasar, “time is so pressing that one cannot settle into it with unconcerned comfort.”
Jonah, of course, did not wish to embark on an uncomfortable mission. Consequently, he experienced even greater discomfort. But the bigger issue for Jonah, as it is for all of us, is not so much material comfort as it is spiritual sloth. The Catechism explains that “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (par 2094).
Jonah was actually repelled and angered by God’s gift of mercy and salvation to the hated Assyrians. When the Assyrians turned away from their evil way and God did not carry out the destruction of Nineveh, Jonah did not rejoice or praise God: “But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (Jon 4:1). Why was he angry? St. Augustine noted that the prophet “was frustrated over the redemption and salvation of the Gentiles!” Jonah had to learn that God does not desire the destruction of his creatures, but their holiness and perfection (see Jon 4:9-11).
One lesson to be learned is that it’s not just those people “out there”, in the world, who need conversion and cleansing, but also those of us who have been baptized into Christ and are members of his mystical Body. When Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets to follow Christ, they embarked on the path of conversion. But we know it was a long and often difficult path, filled with misunderstandings, failings, and, in the case of Peter, denial of the Lord.
We also need constant conversion, for there is no time for anything else.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 22, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)