Mar 9, 2022: Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

1st Reading – Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath,
so that we shall not perish.”
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.

The book of Jonah is noticeably different from the other prophetical books. For one thing, it’s very short. For another, the prophet’s teaching recorded in it amounts to just one sentence: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” (3:4, in today’s reading). In fact, the message of the book lies not in the prophet’s preaching but in the narrative — the adventures and stories it relates and its account of Jonah’s conversations with God.

As in other books, like those by Ruth and Job, the historicity (or otherwise) of the story is not particularly important: the lessons implied in the story are what matters.

Our reading for today occurs after Jonah’s famous encounter with the great fish. God spares the people of Nineveh because they heed the message God sent through him.

Our reading for today occurs after Jonah’s famous encounter with the great fish. God spares the people of Nineveh because they heed the message God sent through him.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah,

A technical phrase identifying Jonah as a prophet sent by God.

saying: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.” So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding.

The recipient of God’s word is usually Israel, but in this case, it is Nineveh, Israel’s mortal enemy.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and known throughout the ancient Near East as one of the most brutal cities of its day. It was the Ninevites who had conquered the ten northern tribes of Israel. It is to this despised city that the prophet is sent with a pronouncement of judgment and punishment.

Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it.

The uncommon size of Nineveh emphasizes the extent of its arrogance and wickedness — and the scope of repentance needed if it is to be saved.

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”

For unspecified reasons, Jonah does not go into the heart of the city. He enters only partially and there proclaims the message he has received from God.

A period of forty days is given to the Ninevites so that the entire population can be warned of the impending punishment. Forty represents a significant biblical period of time, often indicative of great change. It is the length of the flood (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17) and of Moses’ conversation with God on the Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18, 34:28); it was the number of years the Israelites spent in the desert, it was the number of days it took Elijah to travel to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

Note the brevity of the message: no long judgment speeches or oracles of admonition, judgment, and doom. The paucity of words adds to the speed of the story’s movement, underscoring Jonah’s desire to complete his task as soon as possible.

when the people of Nineveh believed God; 

The Hebrew expression employed here is the same as that used for Abraham’s renowned belief in Genesis 15:6.

they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

In an unlikely turn of events, the city renowned for its wickedness repents as soon as it hears the proclamation of a prophet from one of the backwater nations it has oppressed.

Notice how the Ninevites themselves, not the prophet, proclaim a fast for repentance. Further, the comprehensiveness of their spirit of repentance is remarkable: all people in this enormous city, both great and small, put on the garments of penance.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.

An account of Jonah’s errand is brought to the king of Nineveh, who some think was Sardanapalus at this time. Others believe it would have been Pul, king of Assyria.

The king lays aside his royal robe, the badge of his imperial dignity, and puts on the garb of a penitent — in token of his humiliation for sin and his dread of divine vengeance.

Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. 

The king issues a decree that sounds like something a prophet would have said (see Joel 2:12-14). Note that the decree was ordered by the king and his nobles; the whole legislative power concurred in appointing it, and the whole body of the people concurred in observing it. Thus it was a national act; as we will see, it will serve to prevent a national ruin.

Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.”

The king of the Ninevites seems to be quite familiar with biblical teaching, for he is well aware that displays of penance will not automatically stay God’s hand (see Jeremiah 36:3,9).

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.

When God sees that the king has had a genuine change of heart and that the people are ready to mend their ways, he revokes his decision to punish them.

The sudden conversion of this contemptible city speaks loudly of the graciousness of God and the transformative power of God’s word. Even the worst sinners can repent and be made new.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this story is God’s concern with the salvation of a nation other than Israel; in fact, for a nation that has been a brutal enemy of the chosen people. This demonstrates the universality of divine compassion and willingness to forgive.

Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 18-19

R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Today’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 51, the best known of the seven Penitential Psalms (the others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143). This Christian designation dates from the 7th century AD for psalms suitable to express repentance.

Although it is considered a lament, it also contains elements of a confession and prayer for forgiveness. Christians often use this psalm to pray for God’s forgiveness and petition him for inner renewal by the Holy Spirit.

If it seems familiar, Psalm 51 was our responsorial psalm on Ash Wednesday and the Friday after Ash Wednesday.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. 

The passage begins with a plea for mercy in the face of his guilt, appealing to God’s covenant dispositions: goodness (hesed) and compassion or womb-love, the kind of attachment a mother has to the child she has carried in her womb (rahămîm). The first refers to the steadfast love that characterizes that relationship between covenant partners; the second is the attitude God has toward those who have violated the covenant bond.

Of the three words used for sin in this psalm, “offense” (pesha’) is the word that implies a breach in relationship. The term itself is a collective, denoting the sum of misdeeds and rebellion of the gravest nature, such as a violation of the covenant bond.

Appealing to these dispositions of divine graciousness sets the context for the confession of sin and for prayer for transformation that follows.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.

“Guilt” (‘āwōn) denotes twisted behavior or perversion. It too has a collective connotation, meaning that this is not merely one infraction but a manner of behavior.

The third term, hattā’â, is the most commonly used word for “sin” and is a much more technical term. It comes from the verb that means “miss the mark” and it connotes violation of some law or statute. The failure involved is usually deliberate, not accidental.

The psalmist uses three very dynamic verbs when asking for forgiveness:

  • “wipe out,” which suggests vigorous erasing,
  • “wash,” which implies the treading or pounding that was involved in washing clothes, and
  • “cleanse,” which indicates a deep cleansing of dross from metal or disease from the body.

The very language shows that the admission of guilt and the plea for forgiveness are profound and comprehensive.

A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.

Realizing that the seriousness of sin calls for a thorough transformation, the psalmist prays for a clean heart and a spirit that will not falter (see Ezekiel 11:19). The technical term for “create” (bārā’) is used, indicating that the psalmist is asking for a radical transformation by way of God’s transcendent power as Creator of the universe.

Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.

The prayer is cast in negative terms as well: do not cast me from your presence, do not take your Spirit from me.

Having previously rebelled and violated the covenant bond, the psalmist now begs for the restoration of his intimate connection with God.

For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a holocaust, you would not accept it.

The interior nature of the psalmist’s transformation can be seen in the character of worship that flows from it. External performance, regardless of how faithfully it is done, is not enough. The psalmist goes so far as to say that God is not even pleased with practices of worship. This may sound exaggerated, but it is in keeping with the theme of inner transformation so prominent in the prophetic reading and psalm response.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Heart and spirit are the focus of the psalmist’s attention. The clean heart is now also a humble heart; the steadfast spirit is now also contrite.

The inner renewal effected by God is now complete.

Gospel – Luke 11:29-32

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah. 
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment 
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation 
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here. 
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus reproves the people for demanding signs in addition to the numerous signs he had already been given them.

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,

This sign the Jews were asking for would have been a miracle or some other prodigy. They wanted Jesus’ simple, low-key message to be confirmed with dramatic signs.

It seems that they had gathered in a large crowd not to be taught by Jesus, but to be entertained by him. They are called evil because it seems that no demonstration of divine power will awaken and convince them.

except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.

The difference between the Ninevites and the Israelites can be seen in how Jesus uses our first reading to compare his Jewish contemporaries with their ancestors:

“The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. 

The “queen of the south” was the queen of Sheba in southwestern Arabia, who visited Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-10). She was a pagan and a stranger to Israel, yet she recognized the wisdom with which God had endowed the king of Israel and traveled a great distance to meet him.

She will condemn Israel because God Incarnate is in their very midst, and they reject him.

At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

The Ninevites, sworn enemies of Israel, recognized the prophet Jonah and accepted his message. In contrast, Jerusalem does not wish to recognize Jesus, of whom Jonah was merely a figure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s