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February - March 2014

The trap of riches

 

The idea that religion is a shield against adversity or an insurance policy against vulnerability and trouble, though not biblical, is understandable, as humans tend to place their need for security and protection in God. Much less acceptable, because in stark contrast with the biblical revelation, is the Gospel of wealth, according to which religion is a way of making a profit, and prosperity is a sign of God’s blessings. Such theology, based in the literal and fundamentalist reading of a few verses, derives from Calvinism, but gained new strength recently in the mushrooming and rapidly growing Pentecostal Charismatic type churches.

 

Faith indeed is a great gain, but not in riches, against which St Paul warns: “Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Tim 6: 9–10; cf. Prv 23: 4; 28: 22). Faith makes possible a very personal and consoling relationship with Jesus and is a source of strength, love, hope, understanding and commitment with the world.

 

CHALLENGES • PROPHET JONAH

A mirror of our flights

 

The Prophet Jonah, with his stubborn reluctance to obey God and accomplish the mission entrusted to him, is a mirror of ourselves when we try to dodge our responsibilities towards others

 

Fr Manuel João P. Correia

Comboni Missionary

 

A new year is upon us. It is time to re-start again and programme anew the journey of our life and mission. Life implies a continuous restart—not to repeat the past but to embrace the new opportunities that the future holds for us. In this context, I propose to meditate on the figure of Jonah, a prophet who was invited to rise and start a long trip. It may seem strange to introduce this prophet as an example, given his resistance to obey God’s Word. But isn’t Jonah a good mirror of ourselves?

 

The vocation of Jonah, one of the 12 Minor Prophets in the Bible, appears in the book that bears his name. It is a unique book, narrative in nature, a Midrash, i.e. an exemplary story. Its message is one of the climaxes of the first Testament, a harbinger of the message of Jesus, on the merciful father who wants to save all.

 

The story is known. The prophet Jonah (whose name means ‘dove’!) receives from God a missionary order: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me” (Jonah 1: 2). The biblical text says that Jonah made ready to go in the opposite direction, to flee away from the Lord. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and boarded it (cf. Jon 1: 3). Once on board, he took refuge in “the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep” (Jon 1: 5).

 

Instead of leaving towards the East, in the direction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, a historical enemy of his people Israel, he intended to run to a faraway place. The ‘dove’ refused to bring the message. In fact, Tarshish is somewhere in the West, perhaps in Italy (there are even those who say that it is Gibraltar!), i.e. at the antipodes of where he should have gone—far from Nineveh and its people, away from God and His awkward assignment.

 

How often don’t we run away from our responsibility, opting for a life without sacrifice and the Cross, taking refuge in a convenient and peaceful life which doesn’t imply commitment and struggle?! Jonah, a missionary on the run, is the mirror of our many false departures, which are flights from our duty, from our mission. Where am I moving—towards Nineveh or Tarshish? Without ‘responsibility’ (i.e. availability to answer) we don’t grow, we are eternally childlike.

 

 

 

 

Spirituality of proximity

The religious mentality of Jonah brings him to keep DISTANCES! He avoided Nineveh, because its inhabitants were pagans and enemies; they were ‘distant’ and so must they remain. Jonah also ran away from God because he didn’t share His attitude of compassion, of ‘proximity’ with Nineveh. Jonah set out—not to be closer but to be beyond reach.

 

St Daniel Comboni, the Apostle of Africa, offers us an example of a ‘good departure’. Convinced of being sent by God to Africa, he struggled to overcome all obstacles that could prevent him from leaving. In the face of the first trip’s failure that leads many to give up the enterprise, he did not despair and insisted: “If the Pope, Propaganda Fide and all the bishops in the world were against me, I would lie low for a year and then present a new plan: but I would never, never stop thinking of Africa” (Daniel Comboni, Writings, 1071). His is a missionary spirituality of PROXIMITY! He left his country, family, friends and the dearest realities to become ‘close’ to those who were far away. He departed towards the periphery of the world, to distant and unknown lands and populations, to be near them. In this way, he approached the Heart of God.

 

And mine, is it a missionary spirituality that creates proximity or a religiosity of alienation that keeps distances and even digs trenches between me and the others, between my heart and the Heart of God?

 

God’s traps

In response to the ‘order of mission’, Jonah shut up and fled. God shut up too, but started His manhunt. The Lord is “the God of a thousand ambushes”, says an Italian theologian (see Amos 5:18–19). He precedes us even in ways that keep us from him, to set up a ‘trap’, so that we may fall into His arms.

 

God sent His first messenger: the wind, which raised such a storm that threatened to sink the ship. This messenger converted the passengers who started praying—all of them, except Jonah. It was the captain himself who found him in the dark hold of the boat, deeply asleep, alienated from the anguish, bustle and effort that seized all the ship’s sailors. He awakened Jonah abruptly: “What are you doing asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps this god will be mindful of us so that we will not perish” (Jon 1: 6).

 

Weird sleep was this of Jonah, which denounced his attempt to silence the voice of his conscience! It is certainly not the peaceful sleep of Jesus, laying his head on a cushion on the stern of the boat of Peter, threatened by a violent storm on the Lake of Galilee (cf. Mk 4: 35–41). Jonah’s lethargy is not unknown to us. I think we could say that each one of us has his refuge, where he looks for distraction and to get away from painful realities, in a vain attempt to ignore the call to ‘responsibility’. It is a subterfuge which comes from long ago, from the time of Adam and Eve, when they hid from the gaze of God after their disobedience. But there’s no place to hide us from the face of God. Psalm 139 says it very well: “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea, even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast. If I say, ‘Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’—darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one” (Ps 139: 7–12).

 

The passengers of the boat, flogged by the squall, decided to investigate who was to blame, by casting lots. The lot fell on Jonah! It was the second messenger, through which the long arm of God reached his envoy to call him to responsibility. Jonah, caught red-handed, acknowledged his guilt and told his fellow travellers to throw him overboard. We don’t know whether this was a supreme act of abandonment in God’s arms—it rather seems to indicate a last and desperate gesture dictated by remorse.

 

“I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live”, says the Lord through Prophet Ezekiel (33: 11). God sends a third messenger to rescue his prophet: “a great fish”. Jonah “remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jon 2: 1). It was a paschal experience, which converted the heart of Jonah and made him pray, at last! From the depths of the fish’s belly, Jonah lifted up a heartfelt prayer to God. “Then, the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land” (Jon 2: 11).

 

Popular imagination believes that it was a whale. A Jewish tradition says that both eyes of the whale were like two windows through which Jonah contemplated the external reality. Since the whale has lateral eyes, each eye has a different view—one to the left and the other to the right. From these two visual angles, Jonah is forced to consider a dual perspective of reality: his—facing West, Tarshish; and God’s—facing East, Nineveh. God’s view will eventually prevail.

 

How many times has this happened to us, that we are obliged to ‘enter into ourselves’, to face our reality and pray precisely at the moment of distress, when we are in the bowels of the whale?

 

The prophet on the hill

Jonah was sent for the second time: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you” (Jon 3: 2). Jonah obeyed this time, willingly or unwillingly. He began to scour the enormous city (“it took three days to walk through it!”), preaching: “forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jon 3: 4). Upon completion of his mission, the ‘dove’, Jonah took refuge on a hill away from the city to see what would happen to it. Here, we see that his ‘proximity’ to these people is only momentary and physical; it does not reach the heart. As soon as possible, he ran away from the city. He became a simple spectator. He did not sympathize with the people. They were not ‘his’ people!

 

This was not the attitude of Daniel Comboni. He showed solidarity with ‘his’ people, he made “common cause” with the Africans. He contemplated them from the Hill of Calvary, with the gaze of the pierced heart of Christ the Good Shepherd. He was ready to give his life for them. His privileged place of observation was in the shadow of the Cross.

 

From which hill do we contemplate the world? From the fortified hill of our selfishness (hopefully not with a vulture’s eyes!), or from the hill of solidarity where the Cross of Christ was planted, with the meek look of the dove, from where it flies to announce peace?

 

City and prophet in need of salvation

The preaching of Jonah, however, met with an unexpected success. The King decreed a fasting of penance and conversion, and God forgave them. Indeed, the threat of his punishment was just a ‘weapon’ at the service of mercy.

 

There was much joy in heaven and gladness in Nineveh—but not in the heart of Jonah. The outcome he expected was another: that fire would come down from heaven, as happened with Elijah. Jonah was so outraged by this and angry at God that he wished to die. Deep down, he behaved like the older son of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who refused to share the joy of the Father and welcome the younger brother who had been lost (cf. Lk 15: 11–32).

 

But the Father, who had saved Nineveh, also wanted to save His prophet. Jonah, on the hilltop, took refuge from the sun under a hut he had built. God then provided a shrub (“a gourd plant”) to shade his head and cure him of his bad mood. Jonah rejoiced in it.

 

The next day, however, the Lord sent a small messenger, a simple worm that attacked the root of the plant and it withered. Then, He sent the sun’s heat to beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Angry and weak, he invoked death again.

 

The book ends with a question, addressed to the prophet but also to us who so often despair with the small things that happen to us, without worrying about the fate of others:

 

“You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow. (…) And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?” (Jon 4: 10–11).

 

What will my answer be?

 

 

“Jonah, a missionary on the run, is the mirror of our many false departures, which are flights from our duty, from our mission.”

“As soon as possible, Jonah ran away from the city. He became a simple spectator. He did not sympathize with the people. They were not ‘his’ people!”

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