[HOMILY] Jonah: Be a missionary, even if you’re bad at it.
It can be hard for many of to dive into the story of Jonah- because like the story of Noah, and perhaps even the story of creation, it’s become a children’s story that we see ourselves “growing out of” or maybe just ignoring in order not to have to confront the difficult, seemingly surreal parts of the story. We have mythologized them. That’s a shame, because the story of Jonah has so much to teach us- and in particular, about being a missionary. So, to begin this homily I would just like to review the life of Jonah- which shouldn’t take long because the book is only four chapters.
Jonah is an action-packed story. The first line of the book is the word of God coming to Jonah, and he is called to preach to Nineveh. Jonah hates Nineveh, and rightly so because they were the capital of the Assyrian empire that ravaged the ancient world, including Israel. So, instead of following God’s call, he flees to Tarshish. While sleeping on a boat, a great wind kicks up and the sailors are terrified. They wake Jonah and compel him to pray to his God, hoping they might be saved.
Next, they cast lots to see whose fault this storm was, and of course it falls to Jonah. He admits to them that he is fleeing God, and tells them it is certainly his fault this storm has come upon them. They are now terrified that they are aiding a prophet on the run, yet they still refuse to throw Jonah over the side of the ship as he tells them to, instead redoubling their rowing efforts.
Eventually it is obvious they can’t row out of the storm, so they finally toss Jonah over. At that moment the storms calm, and the pagan sailors are amazed. Jonah is probably thinking he finally escaped God for good because he will now die, but instead he is swallowed up by a giant ancient fish. A fish? Chillin in the belly of a great whale? I think this is where most modern readers scoff. Yet, think about it, compared to healing blindness, resurrection from the dead, the multiplication of loaves and fish, and so many other miracles, is surviving in the belly of a fish that crazy? Sure, this story could be a spiritual allegory, but nothing suggests that is the case, and Jesus references this event, so I conclude Jonah did indeed spent three days in the whale.
Finally, after being vomited up on shore, and God speaking to him a second time, Jonah made his way to Nineveh, and this is where our reading picks up. This massive pagan city takes three days to walk, yet it only takes one day of preaching from Jonah before they believe God and repent in sack-cloth and ashes. Even the animals are clothed in sackcloth and ashes and not allowed to eat. The king of Nineveh said, “Who knows, God may yet repent, and turn his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” And God did indeed spare the city from destruction.
Happy ending, am I right? Nope, we see as the story continues that Jonah didn’t expect the Assyrians to repent, nor did he expect God to spare them after they repented. Instead, he finds a comfy spot on a cliff to watch the fire and brimstone. He’s angry when he finds out God won’t destroy the city, and angrier still when the plant God grew to shade him from the sun dies and withers. God asks Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who know not their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” And that’s how it ends- what happens to Jonah? We are left hangin.
What an odd prophet Jonah is. Certainly not the prophet we would choose to model our lives on. Yet, he is also the prophet most of us can relate to more than we would like. I certainly can relate: when I was at Carroll College, I was hired on as a sophomore to be a peer minister. I was put on a floor with 50 guys and put in charge of ministry for that floor. I was one year older than these guys and I had been a Catholic for two years. I had no clue how to go about the mission. All I knew was, I was supposed to talk to these men about Jesus. Very quickly, I got to know the guys interested in their faith, and recognized those not interested. Being an insecure 20-year-old, I pretty much wrote off the uninterested dudes as a lost cause.
Yet, I could not bring myself to completely give up, so I would still invite guys whenever there was an event. This became a meaningless ritual after a while, and I only continued it out of a sense of duty. Yet more than once, I would drop an invite and a guy and he would unexpectedly say yes. He would go to mass, later he would begin coming to other events, and soon after that he would be embracing the Christian life. What was I to think? Well, God had prepared that man’s heart, God had planted the seed and cultivated it in secret, all I needed to do was send out an invitation- even if I was kind of afraid, a bit self-conscious, and half-hearted.
We never know how our acts of courageous discipleship will be answered. We never know whose heart is ready to be called to greatness, or who is yearning for some sort of meaningful mission.
It is always tough to bring God into conversations, to invite, to question, and it is often awkward. Yet it is not our job as Christians to make everyone feel comfortable, nor is it our mission to be comfortable. It is our job, our mission to call this world and everyone in it to greatness, to the joy of the gospel. Bishop Robert Barron is relentless in reminding the Church that “to be a Christian is to be a missionary- period.” Does this mean we take up a megaphone? No, of course not, but think of those who called you to really live the gospel, how did they do it? Of those who witnessed to me, to those around me, they were bold without being coercive, and even then, I didn’t always respond with enthusiasm, but who cares?
St. John Paul II made clear that “the Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” That is quoted often, yet we often forget the send half of the quote. I will repeat the whole quotation: “the Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. What she proposes, however, is the truth, and the truth does impose itself.”
What does that mean? John Paul II reminds us to be courageous in evangelizing, and don’t worry about having the perfect answers before entering into the fray. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, he makes up for what is lacking in us for his word is the truth and is compelling in itself. He worked through Jonah, he can work through you. And when we look to today’s gospel, we see the humble beginnings of the first four apostles on the shores of Galilee. They were no trained scholars, nor were they compelling in any natural way. They came to believe in Jesus Christ, and rooted in him, they became fearless evangelists.
It has always been paradox of Christian life that it is precisely in our missionary work that we become fearless missionaries. Why? Because the more we actually live it, the more we see how powerfully God is at work in the world, and the more we depend on him in our daily lives.
Today, Jonah gives us a bit of self-knowledge and the disciples give us hope in really coming to know God and being courageous in our missionary work. We propose the great truth of Christ’s resurrection, and entrust the rest to God.
 Jonah 3:9
 Bishop Robert Barron, WOF Podcast, episode 108