What is your call to Nineveh?

by Ben Cheng
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

Today our first reading for mass is taken from the book of the prophet Jonah, which summarizes beautifully the essential dynamics of our spiritual life. Let us unpack these spiritual principles which also apply to us. It begins with the Word of the Lord coming to Jonah saying, "Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me" (Jon 1:2). In Biblical religion, our life begins with a call: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Peter, Paul, and all the great figures are called by God. They did not set the tone for their lives themselves, rather they are summoned by God. In the same way, our lives are not about us, they are about God, and what God demands of us.

So Jonah hears a call to go to the city of Nineveh, and to announce repentance. It is described that Nineveh is a great city, so Jonah's job is difficult, and he is reluctant. It is another spiritual lesson: God's calls are oftentimes demanding, and all of us are summoned by God with some great but difficult tasks. For example, if you are a lawyer or a judge, what is your call to Nineveh? May I suggest the call might be to live in accordance with justice and for the sake of justice, not for your self-aggrandizement, money, and power, but to be a servant of justice. If you are a business person, your call to Nineveh might be to live in such a way that you are concerned for others, and serve others using your business skills to benefit them, not yourself. It is the truth, goodness, beauty, justice which are our calls to Nineveh; our prophetic call is to live according to God’s purposes.

What does Jonah do when he hears this call? Like most people who are summoned by God, he resists. He flees all the way to “Tarshish”, to the southern point of Spain. It is a Biblical metaphor of saying he runs away as far as he can, in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go. Many of us who hear the summon of God but do not respond, and go in precisely the opposite direction. We are being summoned to a life in love with justice and truth, love for others, and holiness, but instead, we live our whole life running to Tarshish, in precisely the opposite direction. Jonah gets on a ship in Tarshish, convinced that he is avoiding the press of God, thinking that if he gets as far away as he can, he will not feel the presence of God. Does this often resonate in our heart?

Jonah is on a boat with several others, and a terrible storm picks up and threatens them, their ship is being pounded by the waves. What is the spiritual lesson? When we disobey the call of God, our life becomes chaotic and tumultuous. Moreover, our disobedience affects not only ourselves, but all of those around us. Therefore, going with the grain of God's call is the key. In the midst of the storm, they find that Jonah is the one who is responsible, and they throw him overboard, and immediately the storm subsides. Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish, and for three days he lives in the belly of that fish. Another lesson: Resistance to God's call causes a storm, and when we finally surrender to God, what we need is a moment of purification. Jonah, with his egotism and fear, runs away, but when he finally surrenders to God, he is being swallowed up, and is constrained in the belly of the fish, unable to move. It feels like imprisonment, but the truth is that our errand will is being drawn into the power of a greater will! The fish is swimming with him all the way back from where he came. God is grasping Jonah, limiting his own freedom, restricting him, and bringing him back where God wants him to be. Let us think of Moses spending years in the desert before his mission, and Paul after encountering the light of Christ, he was sent three years in the desert, preparing for the mission. In the same principle, when we suffer, go into a time of depression, dryness, or failure, and our life seems to be shutting down or being restricted, we should read it as a time of Jonah, a time in the belly of the fish. It is not an arbitrary punishment, but rather it is disciplining our wills, in preparation for the mission. The fish swims with Jonah all the way back, and it vomits him out on the seashore just where he started. This time Jonah follows the will of God, and he goes to the great city of Nineveh, and proclaims repentance. The people in the whole city all repent, from the King, to the common people, and even the “cattle put on sackcloth” (Jon 3:8). Jonah becomes one of the most powerful preachers in history.

So what is God calling you to do right now? Once you find out, do not run, and let ourselves be disciplined, and respond to the call. When we surrender and do the will of God, our life becomes rich, and we will be a conduit of grace.

This is an excerpt from Bishop Robert Barron’s homilies, including “The Spiritual Drama of Jonah” , and “The Reluctant Prophet” .
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