“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” Psm 51:17b
This refrain from our responsorial psalm was King David’s cry of repentance for his sins of adultery and murder. It is a groan full of remorse, acknowledging his sins against others and his God. Yet it is full of the hope of forgiveness of his sins, based on his personal knowledge of the merciful heart of God. Each Friday, Psalm 51 is the first psalm prayed by the whole Church in Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of Hours. It should be in our hearts and on our lips throughout these forty days of Lent.
The prophet Jonah sinned against God and the Ninevites when he disobeyed God’s command of “Arise,” go to Nineveh and preach repentance to them. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, the country that conquered the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and scattered the ten tribes later in 722 BC. The Ninevites were known for their violence and cruelty. Disobeying God, Jonah caught the first ship leaving from the coast going due west towards Tarshish in Spain. When a mighty tempest struck this ship, the captain found Jonah asleep in the hold and commanded him to “Arise” and pray to his god so the ship would not sink.
Jonah told the crew that his God was punishing him and that he should be sacrificed to the winds and waves so they could be saved. When he was thrown overboard, calm ensued, and God sent a great fish to catch Jonah for the next part of his journey. It is clear from Jon 2:6 that Jonah had died. After 3 days and nights the fish vomited him up on to the dry land. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise” (resurrecting Jonah), go to Nineveh… and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Jon 3:1-2 RSVCE2
This time Jonah obeyed. He told the Ninevites that they would be destroyed in forty days unless they repented. This city was described as an “exceedingly great city,” taking three days to traverse. After just one day of preaching, all the people, including the king, put on sackcloth, sat in ashes, and prayed to God to save them.
Did you ever wonder why Jonah’s preaching was so successful? Jonah must have confessed his disobedience. And told them about the terrible storm, being cast into the ocean. And being swallowed by the fish that the God of Israel sent to catch him. This God who controls the sea, raised him from the dead. He gave him a second chance to preach repentance to the Ninevites. God raised him so that they could be saved. Just so, he recounted the mighty deeds of God in his life. The Ninevites repented and God saved the city, including 120,000 children, who did not know the difference between their right and left hand, and many cattle.
Unlike David, Jonah, and the Ninevites, the “evil generation” of scribes and Pharisees did not repent. They were looking for Jesus to show something spectacular like Moses showed Pharoah. Their hearts were hard, always looking for a pretense to trap Jesus in His actions or words. Jesus said that “no sign would be given, except the sign of Jonah.” In the parallel passage to today’s gospel in Matthew 12:40, Jesus said: “For as Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth.” After His death and resurrection, Jesus commanded His apostles to go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to observe everything He had taught them. (Mt 28:19-20) They spread the news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and within two centuries the pagans had repented and Christ was followed by the known world.
Dr. Brant Pitre, Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado agrees with Eusebius of Caesarea. In “The Proof of the Gospel,” 1.6.20-21, Eusebius said that the “sign of Jonah” is not just the miraculous resurrection of Jesus. It’s also the miracle of the conversion of the pagans of the world. The obedient Son of God was the perfect sacrifice that continues to redeem the world.
During this Lent, let us then arise, repent for our disobedience, and pray to our mighty God and Savior. We have neither lived for Him nor testified of Him, to the pagans, as we should. But by our baptisms we have died with Him and risen with Him. We have been bought with a price. He has called us to preach the Good News. Like Jonah, let us not be afraid to tell how much the Risen Lord has done for us. Share how He is the God of second chances.