The story of the prophet Jonah is poignantly beautiful.
It is also hilarious!
Like a petulant toddler, Jonah runs away when he thinks he *might* get away with it. His solution to the storm at sea - “Well, guys, looks like you’d better throw me overboard” - sounds like it was written by Steven Wright. Once in Nineveh, Jonah delivers a lackluster, bare minimum version of God’s message, and then is furious when his prophecy is stunningly successful because, among other things, the pardon might make him look like a false prophet! The kicker is when the withering of a vine makes him ask to die.
Like all great comedy, this book means for us to laugh at ourselves. We are often as ridiculous as Jonah. You know, the kind of people whose moods are ruined when our landscaping goes south but who aren’t really bothered by the idea that some of our neighbors might be flirting with eternal damnation. The kind of people who might know what God wants from them but then fail to do it because we aren’t feeling like it right now.
Debates about whether Jonah was literally swallowed by a fish miss the point: God had mercy on Jonah when Jonah rejected Him! God’s creative mercy often does not look like mercy to us; it can look like a sea monster and certain doom.
Mandating the Impractical
God’s plan for getting Jonah back to shore via fish mouth was impractical.
God’s mandate to Jonah - to enter a large, pagan city known for murdering Hebrews like Jonah and tell the people to repent or die - was not a recipe for success.
The depiction of divine strategy in the book of Jonah has much in common with the book of Joshua, when God‘s instructions for taking Jericho go way beyond unconventional and straight into craziness.
I am reminded, too, of the setup for the miracle of the loaves and fishes - it must have seemed like feeble, surrealist theater until it was suddenly an undeniable, seismic miracle.
The Bible is full of times when God’s directions seem utterly foolish and bound to fail.
One time, our Lord advised us to be careful, but on balance, he mostly told us to be reckless: sell your possessions! obey these undereducated fishermen! roll the stone away from the tomb of 4-days dead Lazarus! don’t tell me to avoid execution in Jerusalem, satan!
So why is it that leaders of Christian institutions again and again spend more time in strategic planning meetings than in exercises of faithful obedience to the Gospel?
The late Rabbi Michael Signer, may God hold him close, once told me not to mourn if a program, a school, a religious order, or any other such expression of my church should wither and die: Don’t, he advised, confuse a blossom for the plant. But we have trouble letting go and following the rabbi’s advice; we cling to the familiar methods, to the savvy strategy of having a savvy strategy, and we become more willing to risk faithful discipleship than to risk a worldly setback. We forget that faithfulness IS ITSELF success.
Faithfulness is Success
Our school and parish prayed a novena for the intention that families looking for a place to raise their children to the light in a truly Catholic community without retreating or isolating from the world would find us. Enrollment went from 135 in Fall 2020 to over 200 in Fall 2021. Families came from all over - Oregon, California, Minnesota, New Jersey.... Even some local homeschooling families joined us (which for homeschoolers is just as dramatic as moving states, speaking from personal experience).
If we had told the diocese in advance, “Our school’s main plan for increasing enrollment is to pray for more students and families,” how would they have responded? With enthusiasm and respect, or skepticism and disdain? Would more or less paperwork obtain from putting such a plan on the superintendent’s desk?
We agree that the plan was laughable. The school followed the Jonah plan, the Jericho plan, the Calvary plan. We are focusing on the mission of a Catholic school, and that mission is the person of Jesus Christ.
Will God continue to prosper our school? That is the wrong question, and we don’t need to know the answer. We are called to be faithful, not successful, so we should focus on our depth and let God decide on the breadth.
All our efforts here will one day be brought to naught except for those that help us, our loved ones, and our enemies find, love, and serve the Lord.
Unlike Jonah, let’s have a joyful attitude as we put out into the deep with Christ. Let’s acknowledge the comedy in creatures pretending they can do better than Grace. Let us become attached not to a vine that can shelter but will wither, but rather to the one true vine that gives life to us the branches.
Photo credit: Daniel Newman on Unsplash