The summary of a meditation I led in a church in Kottayam during the Nineveh lent last week.
If the story of Jonah were written today, one of its possible titles might be this: Jonah learns nonviolence. Jonah appears as a historical figure in the second book of Kings -- a prophet who lived in the eighth century during the reign of Jeroboam II (II Kings 14: 25). Predicting the prosperity during Jeroboam's reign, Jonah might have become a national hero in those days. Legends on Jonah were passed from generation to generation, and about four centuries later, someone wrote a story about him. The story reflects the views of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, who lived during this period.
Although this book is included among the prophets, it is strictly not a book of prophecy in its literary form, but it is a story about a prophet. Using modern standards, this is a very readable story. The element of suspense keeps the readers reading till the very end. Like the stories of O. Henry, the key of the story lies at the very end of the story. The story is simple enough for children; also it is so deep for the wise people who would enjoy diving deep into it.
God and Jonah are the two primary characters in the story. The captain and the crew of the ship in which Jonah travels, and the king and the people of Nineveh are the other human characters. There are also a few non-human characters, such as the wind, a fish, a plant, and a worm.
The story begins with a problem in the city of Nineveh,the capital of the Empire of Assyria. The people of Nineveh have deviated from the will of God, and they are leading an ungodly life. God, the one who manages the welfare of the whole world, sends Jonah over there to warn them of what would happen if they do not turn around and lead a life according to the will of God. Hearing the warning of Jonah, the People of Nineveh repent and turn to God. Thus the problem in Nineveh is resolved.
However, this is only a background plot. Another plot that develops on top of this plot is the main plot. When God directs Jonah to go to Nineveh, instead of going there, Jonah goes to a different place. Jonah has a different view of how the problem of Nineveh needs to be resolved. This is the problem in the main plot. God applies some force to bring Jonah back, and he unwillingly submits to God's will. Then God patiently teaches Jonah how his view is wrong, and with his learning the lesson, the problem is resolved.
The difference in the views of God and Jonah of how the problem of Nineveh can be resolved is the primary theme of the story. The solution according to Jonah is to get rid of Nineveh. Jonah knew that Assyrians were a threat to the wellbeing of Israel. God's solution is different. God wants to give them an opportunity to turn around. Jonah's solution is violent, but God's solution is nonviolent.
This difference is clearly illustrated in the story of the prodigal son. This story also has two plots. In the first, the younger son leaves his home against his father's will, wastes his share, and finally he repents and return to his home. In the second, the older son approaches the situation differently from that of his father. He does not welcome his brother, but his father is willing to welcome him. His approach is violent, but his father's is nonviolent.
Jesus sensed a lot of violence around him. The poor, the sick, the disabled, and women were stigmatized. Violence came not only from the rulers but also from the religious leaders. Jesus was also tempted to use violence to bring about a just and peaceful world around him. But instead of submitting to the temptation, he chose the path of nonviolence. Instead of forcing justice and peace upon people, he invited the people to choose justice and peace willingly. He became a king for the people who follow his path of nonviolence.
Wherever a man-man relationship is broken, the violent approach is often the easier choice. One party would be tempted to resolve the problem by getting rid of the other party. Examples of this approach include divorces in family relationships and wars between nations. This is the approach of Jonah. However, a nonviolent approach, which is not so easy, is the only lasting and effective solution. St. Peter in his epistle advises women to take a nonviolent approach in family relationships. Great leaders like Gandhi and M. L. King, following the lead of Jesus, showed us how nonviolence can be applied in national and global life.