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In Defense of Jonah

In the Reluctant Prophet we have the classic (and beautiful) case of God ‘choosing a crooked pencil to draw a straight line’, for Jonah is the perfect ‘crooked pencil’ with which to draw that perfectly straight line.

Detail from "Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites (Jon. 3:1-10)" by Gustave Doré (Wikipedia)

Perhaps no character or characters in the Bible—other than the Pharisees—is held in lower esteem in the thought of Pope Francis than the Reluctant Prophet Jonah. And, since the readings from the Old Testament for daily Mass in the early days of October came from the Book of Jonah, it should come as no surprise His Holiness took the opportunity to offer variations on a theme he offered four years ago—a phenomenon he calls “The Jonah Syndrome.”

As he stated four years ago,

Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh, and so he fled to Spain. In his mind: the teaching is this, you have to believe this. If they are sinners, they can sort it out for themselves; I have nothing to do with it!.

The Jonah syndrome afflicts those without zeal for the conversion of others; what they are looking for is a holiness, if I may say, a holiness they can pick up at the dry-cleaners. It is clean and pressed but wholly lacking in the zeal that leads us to preach and proclaim the Lord.

More recently he has offered an expanded understanding of these thoughts. Speaking on Oct. 10th, the Holy Father painted Jonah as “a stubborn man who wanted to teach God how to do things”.  Jonah was “stubborn, but more than stubborn he was rigid, a rigid, inflexible man,” as if his “soul had been starched”.  Jonah and those who suffer from the “Jonah Syndrome,” are “cowards with small, closed hearts, attached to “issues of naked righteousness. … And they forget that God’s justice became flesh in his Son, it became mercy and forgiveness; they forget that God’s heart is always open to forgiveness”.  Pointedly, His Holiness bluntly asserts, “We must preach this, that these get punished because they have done evil and must go to hell….”. In sum, these ‘Jonahites’ are rigid, selfish people bent on depriving others of a relationship with God who must go to hell. As well as being a bit harsh, it’s a view of the Reluctant Prophet, I would argue, that is a bit too one-dimensional.

Thus, and with all due deference and respect to His Holiness, allow me to offer an alternative view of Jonah, one based loosely on the writings of St. Jerome—ironically enough a man also noted for a certain ‘rigidity’ in his personality—to put some flesh and blood onto the bare-bones sketch offered by Francis. Put quite simply, in Jonah we have the classic (and beautiful) case of God ‘choosing a crooked pencil to draw a straight line’, for Jonah is the perfect ‘crooked pencil’ with which to draw that perfectly straight line.

At the heart of the character of Jonah stands one central question: What was (or were) his motivation(s)? Further, why does he initially run away? Why does he then fulfill his mission? And why, finally, is he angry at God at the end?

Over the course of the millenia several answers have been offered to this question. One answer revolves around Jonah’s own personal pride. This answer is offered by a number of Protestand and Catholic commentators such as, most recently, Dr. Jeff Mirus. According to this view, Jonah’s primary concern was that should he go to Nineveh and prophecy it’s destruction, and then were the Ninevites to repent and be spared, he would be labeled a “false prophet.” He would “look like a fool,” as Mirus notes.

Such a view of Jonah presupposes, of course, that far from ‘forgetting God’s mercy’ as Pope Francis would have it, Jonah instead was all to aware of God’s mercy, surmising it highly likely He would grant it—thus rendering Jonah as the fool. As we read in the Book of Jonah. “I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy, and that you repent of evil” (Jonah 4:2-3).

Perhaps this was, in fact, one his motivations for running away. People often have a welter of reasons for acting as they do. Indeed, it is often the case for the believer who chooses to run from God that not just one factor is at play, but, rather a multitude of often conflicting reasons and emotions churning in the soul. Personal pride certainly may have been one of these factors at play in the heart of Jonah.

Yet, St. Gregory of Nanzien, after rejecting personal pride as Jonah’s primary motivation, offers a more nuanced view of what was in Jonah’s heart. He asserts:

…but when he saw the falling away of Israel, and perceived the passing over of the grace of prophecy to the Gentiles— this was the cause of his retirement from preaching and of his delay in fulfilling the command; accordingly he left the watchtower of joy, for this is the meaning of Joppa in Hebrew, I mean his former dignity and reputation, and flung himself into the deep of sorrow: and hence he is tempest-tossed, and falls asleep, and is wrecked, and aroused from sleep, and taken by lot, and confesses his flight, and is cast into sea, and swallowed, but not destroyed, by the whale; but there he calls upon God, and, marvelous as it is, on the third day he, like Christ, is delivered…

St. Gregory doesn’t view Jonah as some “rigid,” heartless, wicked man. Rather, he sees in Jonah a man of deep sorrow. He is saddened that the mercy of God is passing from the people he loves to the Gentiles—and not just any Gentiles, to the inhabitants of the Assyrian city Nineveh, a decadent and powerful city representing a very real, existential threat to his beloved people. He’s not fleeing from God. He knows such flight is impossible for he knows God is the Creator of all, inescapable, omniscient. He is flinging “himself into the deep of sorrow.” His is not a stubborn soul intent on “teaching God how to do things,” but a soul tasting the same sorrow Our Lord experiences when He weeps for His beloved Jerusalem.

This, also, is similar to the view of our Reluctant Prophet taken by St. Jerome in his short, beautiful peon to Jonah. States Jerome:

The prophet knows by an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the repentance of the people (of Nineveh) is the destruction of the Jews….The prophet did not intent to flee to such a place (Tarshish), but throwing himself into the sea, he just wants to go anywhere. And this is more pertinent when talking of a fugitive or one who is afraid, that he does not choose carefully where he wants to flee to, but just jumps at the first opportunity to take to the seas.

And, further, when explaining Jonah’s anger after the salvation of Nineveh, Jerome argues:

He despairs of Israel’s safety and is hit by a great suffering which breaks out in words. He shows the signs of his suffering and more or less says this: ‘I have been the only one of the prophets chosen to announce my people’s ruin to them through the safety of others.’ Thus he is not sad that the crowd of gentiles should be saved, as some people believe, but it is the destruction of Israel. Moreover our Lord wept for Jerusalem and refused to take bread away from the children to give to the dogs,…

Allow me to suggest that in Jonah we have the quintessential biblical archetype for the ‘first son’ about which Jesus spoke in his “parable of the two sons” related in Matthew 21: 28-32. Recall that in that parable, Jesus posits a father who has two sons who he directs to go and work in the vineyard. The father goes to the first son who initially refuses, but then goes and does the father’s will. He then goes to the second son who readily agrees to do his father’s will, but then leaves to go do something else. Jesus asks his listeners which son actually did as the father asked and they give the obvious answer, the first son. Jonah is that first son.

And even His Holiness, Pope Francis, concedes Jonah did his appointed task, his ‘work in the vineyard’ “well.” Indeed, he did it extraordinarily well. I am somewhat perplexed by His Holiness’ insistence on seeing in Jonah such “evil” given the fact Jonah ends up converting not just a boat-full of pagan sailors (Jonah 1:16), but also ends by converting every single one of Nineveh’s 120,00 citizens—including the animals (Jonah 3: 7-9)!

I would further suggest the possibility that it was precisely the reluctance of our Reluctant Prophet which, at the least, contributed to Nineveh’s conversion. Imagine the scene: a man enters their city, a dour man, a sorrowful man, a man conflicted and—one suspects, given he had just been ejected from the belly of whale—a man rough and disheveled. He has one simple message, the simple words given by God for him to relate to the people of Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Note that there is no promise of salvation for repentance, no happy discussion of God’s mercy. It’s a stark message delivered by a stark figure. “That’s it, you’re going to be destroyed in forty days.” It is left to the Ninevite king to decree penance on the chance such might procure mercy. It had to be a powerful message, delivered by a powerful messenger, in order to cut through the sheer arrogance and decadence of a city such as Nineveh and effect such a conversion. Indeed, St. Jerome provides a fascinating hint for this in his writing on Jonah. Discussing Jonah’s seeming despair over the repentance of Nineveh (and, hence, the likely destruction of his beloved homeland) and his expressed preference for death over life, St. Jerome notes:

If I (Jonah) had said that you are merciful, gentle, that you pardon wickedness, no one would have repented. If I had denounced you as a cruel God only fit to judge, I should have know that such is not your nature.

Jerome is telling us that Jonah recognized that had his message to the Ninevites focused primarily on God’s mercy and gentleness, “no one would have repented”!

This might sound strange to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to calls we should be “joyful” evangelists focused primarily on God’s mercy. Yet it is interesting to note that when God chose to send a prophet to the proud, powerful, and wicked Ninevites, he seemingly chose a prophet and a message quite the opposite.

If we accept this alternative view of Jonah, it would seem God chose in Jonah the perfect ‘crooked pencil’ to draw His straight line.

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About Alan L. Anderson 16 Articles
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at the Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Ill.


  1. Jonah always presented an enigma I thought but this superb column offers a good insight.

    Pope Francis sees what he wants to see….justice defined as rigidity and mercy without accountability.

  2. They have a lot to offer to Society. Stubborn, rigid and inflexible persons need to be sensitized through prayer, fraternal corrections and love.

  3. Anderson aptly identifies God’s inseparable mercy and justice in the insightful quote from St Jerome. Jonah prefigured Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The infinitely powerful and good crucified for the weak and wicked. A love worth our dying for.

  4. my take on this…to say Jonah was “swallowed by and in the belly of a great fish”, is to say word for word “Jonah was completely swallowed by, and in the center of a huge wave”….We know Jonahs prayer is very close to psalm 69, a common prayer…2 “breakers and billows passed over me, waters surge up to my neck, and seaweed around my head”, Jonahs on the shore line for this whole ordeal…old testament, waters of chaos, new testament, baptism. and what became clear to me is huge wave, and fish are synoptic…exactly how I see it…

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