I find our first reading today, from the book of the prophet Jonah, absolutely hilarious — because it leaves out pretty much EVERYTHING that makes the story of Jonah so very interesting.
Our passage starts off today telling us that the word of the LORD came to Jonah: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
In the next verse we get:
“So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding.”
Simple enough, right? God told Jonah to go, and he went. Right?
These verses come from Jonah, Chapter 3 — but Jonah, Chapter 1 starts off with these words, which (at first) seem similar enough:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah: Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me.”
So far so good. God calls Jonah to do something.
But the next verse goes a bit differently: “…But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the Lord.”
Jonah runs away. In fact, he tries to get as far away from God as he possibly can. Tarshish was the absolute western limit of the known world at that time.
Why does Jonah do this?
Well, besides the fact that humanity is fallen, and we tend not to see how the call of the Lord is actually what’s best for us, I wonder if something else was going on in the heart and mind of Jonah.
Think about it: What was God calling Jonah to go do?
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me.”
That’s important! The Lord was calling Jonah to go preach against the works of the people of the largest, most powerful city around. Now the picture becomes clearer. Jonah was probably afraid — he was about to stick his neck out. He was about to call a spade a spade, and put his life on the line. He was being asked to preach Truth to the people of Nineveh, and he probably didn’t think it would go very well at all.
So he ran away. Or at least… he tried. As the story goes, the Lord did not give up on Jonah — perhaps to Jonah’s dismay — and sent a great fish to swallow him up, and carry him back to fulfill his vocation, to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.
Repentance is hard.
It’s uncomfortable. Because fundamental to the very concept of “repentance” is the acknowledgement that you’ve been on the wrong road. That you’ve taken the incorrect path, and that you literally have to turn around — change your perspective — change your mind. And we hate doing that, don’t we? We hate being wrong. We hate admitting that something is our fault, that we are guilty.
But there’s no way around repentance.
Practically the very first words of Jesus in his public ministry, as we heard in our Gospel reading today, are: “REPENT and believe in the gospel!” In other words: Turn around! You’re headed the wrong way! Like Jonah’s huge fish, Jesus snatches up souls and redirects them — he is the Fisher of Men who lures them in, changes their course, and carries them back to land, back to their true vocation, back to their mission!
What a grace! What a gift to be caught by the love of Jesus and led in love into repentance — to be transformed and changed.
If you’ve experienced a conversion in your life — a deep interior repentance — you know better than anyone else that you can’t claim any credit at all. God saved you. God helped you to see your errors. I know He did that with me. He led me, giving me a loving smack-upside-the-head, as a brother priest likes to say — into the liberation of heartfelt repentance. I could say without shame: I was wrong. I have sinned. But I am loved. He gave me strength and courage to change my mind.
But if you had that kind of conversion, then you also know that it wasn’t easy. It probably required you to say “no” to things you were used to saying “yes” to. Maybe it meant disappointing friends or family. Perhaps it demanded a tough conversation with someone you loved, or you had to break off an immoral relationship.
Repentance is always hard.
Perhaps it’s even harder, however, to call others to repentance.
I know as a priest, it’s incredibly daunting to have to stand up on this pulpit week in and week out and preach repentance. I’m not perfect. I’m a sinner too. And yet, I am called by God to proclaim, YES — His radiant GOODNESS, His unconditional LOVE, and His unwearying MERCY — Yes, I get to preach all of that, and that’s FUN! But I’m ALSO called to point out the pitfalls, the traps, and the lies that would ensnare all of our souls and drag us away from Jesus.
I have to name sin, and call everyone — including myself — to deep, lasting repentance — That firm resolve to avoid sin. I have to march into this modern-day Nineveh and call a spade a spade, regardless of how I think people might respond.
This weekend, in particular, I feel prompted by the Lord to name the unconscionable evil of abortion. The destruction of innocent life. The dismantling and the jettisoning of the dignity of the human person.
I feel a specific call to pray for the conversion and repentance of our Virginia legislature — which sadly just voted to fund abortions with our tax payer money. I’m moved — hopefully out of sincere love for a brother in Christ — to call our newly inaugurated president to repentance on this hinge issue as well.
No matter your political opinions, we as believing Catholics need to be on the same page in boldly inviting our entire nation to a conversion of heart surrounding that inviolable dignity of every single person, regardless of their stage in development.
Granted, it’s not the only issue we care about as a Church. Catholics need to be clear that we hate ALL sin — and we love EVERY single sinner, with ZERO exceptions. Racism, lack of compassion for the immigrant, indiscriminate destruction of the environment, capital punishment, euthanasia, gender ideology, immoral premarital relations, judgmentalism, abuse, sexism, pride, envy, greed, lust, impatience, hatred, resentment, lack of forgiveness, disrespecting our parents — with each and every one of these problems that so many of us know so well, the Church must boldly and lovingly lead people out of darkness and into the marvelous light and freedom of the Gospel. We need to consistently preach repentance — not because we are judgmental or mean — but so that we can actually encounter the love of Jesus Christ.
The alternative — to ignore evil and pretend that we’re all just fine — would be the cause for my own soul’s damnation and perhaps yours as well. I would be like Jonah, hopping on the first boat to Tarshish and away from God. I can’t do that. Saint Catherine of Siena once said that sincere love for God and sincere hatred for sin are like two sharp edges of a single sword. How can we say that we love God and NOT hate real sin? That would be a gross contradiction.
St. Paul in our second reading today turns up the heat, doesn’t he, when he says: “Time is running out, for the world in its present form is passing away.”
Hear the urgency in those words! We don’t have time to dally around with any sin. None of us have time to make any excuses. We need to learn to love what God loves, and hate what God hates — to embrace virtue and reject vice. If we love what God hates, and hate what God loves — then we are on the wrong side of reality. We are against Jesus and His Church. And we, like the rest of the world, will pass away. Time is running out.
Alright. If all of that’s true — then how do we repent? And how do we call others to repentance?
Well, unfortunately, many people act as if conversion and repentance happens when we attack someone or shame them into orthodoxy — into right belief. Let’s be clear: This is not the case!
No, true conversion is always initiated by the Lord, who advances toward us and seeks us out in love! The poet Francis Thompson once beautifully described God as the Hound of Heaven, tirelessly pursuing the runaway soul:
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…
Like Jonah, the person in the poem is running the opposite direction! They don’t WANT to repent or to turn around. And yet God, the Hound of Heaven, is on a mission to win back that wayward soul! He loves that person too much to give up the hunt!
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
The chase is on — It is a divine pursuit! Christ preaches to each of our souls: “Repent!” Why? Because he wants to be with us.
THAT’S what conversion’s all about! St. Paul, St. Augustine, GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Edith Stein, John Henry Newman, and countless others — all these beautiful souls were not hammered into submission by angry preaching. No — they were drawn into the folds of God’s love by an amazing, almost irresistible grace that they could not fully explain.
Each, in their own way, felt joyfully defeated by the Truth that was proclaimed. CS Lewis described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
He didn’t want to admit that God was God — and yet at long last, after running away for quite some time he felt compelled to kneel down, pray, and repent.
Perhaps each of us should really ask ourselves: Are we still playing around with sin? Are we taking it seriously enough? Or are we still saying to God, at some level or another: “I will love You tomorrow. Tomorrow you’ll see what I’m capable of doing for You. Tomorrow I’ll pay you twice over if you’ll only grant me this one hour today. Give me the spring and I’ll let You have the autumn. Just for today turn away Your gaze, and starting tomorrow you’ll be able to look at me all You like.”
Those words, taken from Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s book, Heart of the World, capture so perfectly our struggle with sin. Meanwhile, God replies, promising forgiveness and peace: “It is NOW that I want to be loved.”
So the Hound of Heaven is quietly, consistently approaching every soul around the globe. And every runaway is invisibly attached by a long, thin thread. Our Christian hope is that in the end — a mere twitch upon that thread will bring that person home, and the runaway, like the prophet Jonah, will finally give up his doomed attempt at avoiding God, and at last allow the Hound of Heaven to catch him, and embrace him!
Repentance IS hard, but it’s the only way. Repent, therefore, and believe in the Gospel — the good news of LIFE in Jesus Christ.