The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days" walk across. He began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
Whoever wrote the Jonah story knew his Bible and his sacred history well and weaves into his narrative ideas and allusions from other parts of the Israel's Scripture and traditions. The words of the Assyrian king, "Who knows God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath?" are drawn from earlier texts like the penitential prayer in Joel 2:14. The inspired author had meditated so long on earlier prophecies that his own preaching and writing became like a tapestry of biblical passages.
Because he knew his Bible so well that he could think only in its language, the author of Jonah almost explodes with exasperation and frustration. Why do those people-his own-with such a rich heritage, refuse to reform their ways and respond to God with faith and justice, with prayer and hope? Look, says this writer, the pagans, even the worst of them, the ruthless and ever hated Assyrians, are more spontaneously good than my own people!
Jonah underlines that most wonderful of surprises, the extraordinary and unsuspected goodness of strangers, even of such unlikely candidates for holiness as . . .. The dotted lines must be filled in by each of us; here we name our worst enemy, the most impossible sinner, hopelessly wicked to the marrow of the bones. Such was the "Assyrian" in the ears of Jonah's people. The same resonance today might attach to such words as Communist or Nazi, paedophile or child molester!
The message of the readings can be summed up in a single phrase, there's always hope! As long as life lasts we must never lose hope in others or indeed in ourselves. Things can always improve, in the local or national scene, and even in world affairs, like the present crises in places like Ukraine or Syria. So surely conversions and transformations can take place. How marvellous that the once pagan city of Nineveh can come to believe in God, proclaim a fast, pray for forgiveness, to become a model of goodness for all the rest of us! Hope can come from unsuspected quarters! Jonah adds that when God saw the repentance of Nineveh, he "repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them." If God can change his mind, how can we maintain rigid condemnation of others?