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Jonah and the call to constant conversion

On the Readings for January 24, 2021

"Jonah and the Whale" (1621) by Pieter Lastman (Wikipedia)

• Jon 3:1-5, 10
• Psa 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
• 1 Cor 7:29-31
• Mk 1:14-20

“Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh, not of Sodom”, wrote St. Gregory of Nazianzus, commenting on the story of the prophet Jonah. “Let us amend our wickedness, lest we be consumed with it. Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah, lest we be overwhelmed by fire and brimstone.”

Such language isn’t common or popular. After all, how can we say God is love and full of mercy if we talk in such a way? As one angry atheist wrote to me years ago, “Why should I believe in a God who delights in throwing people into the flames of hell?”

Well, you shouldn’t. And, in fact, today’s readings reveal that God not only loves mankind, he makes provision for our salvation. The readings, notes Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar in Light of the Word (Ignatius Press, 1993), “all emphasize the urgency of conversion, for there is no time for anything else.”

That phrase—“there is no time for anything else”—can be understood in two complementary ways. First, time is short; it is transitory by nature, and our natural bodies will eventually expire and then we’ll face life after time. This is emphasized in the message taken by Jonah to the Assyrians: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Saint Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, is equally insistent: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.” And our Lord, preaching in Galilee, declared, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

Secondly, since time is short and the time is at hand, our time should be dedicated to what is lasting, eternal, and indestructible. “Time is short”, quipped Cardinal John Henry Newman, “eternity is long.” The perennial temptation is to flee the relentless march of time by immersing ourselves in time-bound pleasures, activities, and distractions. These can be sinful, such as the wickedness practiced by the Ninevites, or be good things turned into the ultimate good, such as work, recreation, and relationships.

This is the point made by Paul, who didn’t intend to dismiss the worth of marriage or work, but was exhorting Christians to see and understand them in the light of the eschaton—the end of time and the full revelation of God’s glory and promises. “In and of itself”, noted von Balthasar, “time is so pressing that one cannot settle into it with unconcerned comfort.”

Jonah, of course, did not wish to embark on an uncomfortable mission. Consequently, he experienced even greater discomfort. But the bigger issue for Jonah, as it is for all of us, is not so much material comfort as it is spiritual sloth. The Catechism explains that “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (par 2094).

Jonah was actually repelled and angered by God’s gift of mercy and salvation to the hated Assyrians. When the Assyrians turned away from their evil way and God did not carry out the destruction of Nineveh, Jonah did not rejoice or praise God: “But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (Jon 4:1). Why was he angry? St. Augustine noted that the prophet “was frustrated over the redemption and salvation of the Gentiles!” Jonah had to learn that God does not desire the destruction of his creatures, but their holiness and perfection (see Jon 4:9-11).

One lesson to be learned is that it’s not just those people “out there”, in the world, who need conversion and cleansing, but also those of us who have been baptized into Christ and are members of his mystical Body. When Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets to follow Christ, they embarked on the path of conversion. But we know it was a long and often difficult path, filled with misunderstandings, failings, and, in the case of Peter, denial of the Lord.

We also need constant conversion, for there is no time for anything else.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 22, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar: Emphasizes the urgency of conversion, for there is no time for anything else. Olson, Constant conversion, is the right response. As the saints lived every moment as if it were their last [the Apostle], lived every moment for the glory of God [Ignacio de Loyola]. Fear justifiable drives the first premise, Love the latter. We need both because of our human frailty. As to the latter, There is nothing like God in the universe to compare to him. All is revealed. A few excerpts from the saints help us, To Catherine of Siena, Sin is condemnable because I am infinitely good. To Maria Faustina, I am Supreme Sweetness. John of the Cross says in The Living Flame of Love, How can something so gentle be so powerful? Finally, the fiery Elijah after much tumult, lightening, crashing of boulders the divine majesty not there, then hears a tiny whisper and pulls his hood over his face in recognition of God’s presence. After decades of fighting fear in its challenging forms comprehension of this gentlest purest of loves although incomprehensible somehow is known driving faith. We will only know why Hell is eternal and why conversion moment to moment is necessary when by his grace we perceive God in in the fullness of his divine, most, may I say it endearing majesty.

  2. Conversion in the minds of the self-righteous is most difficult, if not impossible, because of its irrelevancy in their lives.

  3. A Monsignor taught me that sin has two consequences, Guilt and Satisfaction. Guilt can easily be forgiven by God in the Confessional. The second consequence is as St. John says in Scripture, “We all know this, God rewards every good and punishes every sin.”. The priest explained that God is a God of justice and when we sin, be it venial or mortal we insult and sin against the very Justice of God. Every sin we commit must be punished by God or God would betray His own Justice. Christ through His Church grants us every opportunity of satisfying for our merited punishments for sins committed against God’s Divine Justice. God in His infinite Mercy gives us remedies, such as Confession, Holy Communion, Penance, Prayer, Alms giving, Indulgences that comes from the spiritual treasury of the Church. We must imitate the good example of the inhabitants of Nineveh. When I think of this I see the destruction caused by the already officially condemned Modernist heresy. In the 1970’s I remember the prevalent heresy, “God does not punish anyone, the pre-Vatican ll Church was wrong”, Liars!!!

  4. Thanks for the nice and meaningful stuff on the need for conversion. Even Planet Earth our common home is showing signs of wear and tear. Indeed time is short and eternity is long.

  5. It helps to know the meaning of the name Jonah (Yonah) in Hebrew. The word refers to a dove, and is in the feminine gender. We don’t know exactly what kind of fish it was. The Assyrians were the mightiest, (very cruel), army on the planet when Isaiah defied their field marshal, and witnessed their destruction. (185,000 died over-night.) We await the time foretold by Jeremiah when, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord . . . ” (Jer. 31.34)

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