by Bishop Philaretos
Today is the feast of the Holy Prophet Jonah. His story reminds me of our times. It reminds me of our days when virtue is hard to find and the memory of the “good old days” keeps us going but sometimes those memories don’t seem to be enough.
Yes, it is difficult to live in these times. Times that are without good examples to follow. It’s even difficult to live during these times for those of us who met the real thing. We met the older generation of ascetical monastics, the strictly True Orthodox, the Russians Outside of Russia with hierarchs like St. Philaret, St. John of San Francisco, Archbishop Averky, and others.
But speaking of Jonah, we remember that Christ refused signs to a people that didn’t have their heart turned towards him. He told them, as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, that the only sign they were going to get was the sign of Jonah, referring to His own 3-day death and resurrection.
“Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:38-40
But in the Gospel according to St. Luke, Christ speaks again of no sign being given but only the sign that Jonah was to the Ninevites. That is the calling to repentance.
“And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign, and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” Luke 11:29-30
God had instructed Jonah to preach to the Ninevites to repent or have their city destroyed. Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites and decided to “hide from God”; as Jonah himself says, “to flee from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). Jonah knew that our God is a forgiving God and fears that his prophecy of the destruction of Ninevah won’t come true and he will look foolish. Jonah goes to Jaffa to sail to Tarshish. A storm threatens the ship he is traveling on and Jonah admits his guilt and asks to be thrown off the ship and is and that is the part we all know about that the great fish swallows Jonah and three days later spits him up on the land.
Jonah, commanded by God again, does go to Ninevah and preaches repentance. The people repent and God saves the city. The repentance that God asked for takes place and so why shouldn’t God save the city?
Jonah feels he is humiliated by the fact that the city isn’t destroyed and moves out into the wilderness. God causes a gourd vine to grow and shelter Jonah from the sun. But then God sends a worm to eat the vine and Jonah asks God to let him die rather than be burnt by the sun. The conversation goes like this:
But God said to Jonah: “Do you have a right to be sad about the vine?” And Jonah said: “I do. I am sad enough to die.”
But the LORD said: “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”— Jonah 4:9-11
All of us who lived the “real thing” and now feel that we are alone in this time barren time, what should we do? Should we stop proclaiming the truth because we are afraid of being mocked as the Prophet Jonah was? Should we board a ship for some hiding-place called Tarshish? The great fish has already spit us out on land so that we may proclaim the message of God. Should we be intimidated by the lack of signs of our times and the fact that we will certainly appear foolish?
The gourd vine, those good times and days when we had spiritual support from holy people, has been eaten by the worm. We didn’t plant that vine but God did. God allowed us to rest in its shadow. But God now allows us to be left barren without the vine so that we understand that our joy must be in the repentance of any Ninevites that hear us.