The first reading is from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. What most of us know about Jonah is that he spent three days in the belly of a whale. In a song lyric Ira Gershwin described it like this: “He made his home in that fish’s abdomen. Old Jonah, he lived in a whale.”
I had great respect for a young priest who was ordained four years before me, but that changed after he studied in Rome, then wrote an article that said Jonah could not have lived in a whale. I was complaining about fancy Roman schools where they taught young men not to believe in the Bible. But Vatican II taught us that the Bible contains poetry and fables as well as straight history. I had to see that the story of Jonah was a fable.
By my insisting that everything in the story of Jonah had to be factual I missed out on what God was telling us through this story.
In 400 B.C. the Jews had come to believe that foreigners were evil, so God inspired someone to make up this story to show that God wants to save all peoples. In the story Jonah was a man who hated foreigners, particularly the people of Nineveh, so when God told him to go there and to teach the people how they could be saved, he didn’t want to see them saved. He thought by sailing far enough west he could get away from God, but he couldn’t. God stopped him with a big storm at sea.
When Jonah gave in to God’s prompting, he reluctantly announced in the streets of Nineveh that the people’s only hope was in doing penance for their sins. When they took the warning, and did the penance that saved, them Jonah was angry. He had wanted to see God destroying the people of Nineveh.
The story is not about whale bellies, it is about doing the penance that will save us.