A free community of prophets born again with Jonah

A free community of prophets born again with Jonah

In the belly of the Word/6 - The Prophet’s story with God continues after his "no" and the silence

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 25/03/2024

Everywhere in the city, the court heralds spread the decree of the sovereign, imposing three days of fasting, sackcloth and tearful supplications to God to avert the condemnation. They lifted infants towards the sky and shedding rivers of tears, cried out: ‘Hear our prayers, in the name of these innocents.’

L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, VI

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” (Jonah 3: 1-3). The book of Jonah could have begun with these opening verses of chapter 3, which are the verses from the stories of the prophets who responded to God's call and performed the task assigned to them. The first two chapters are however, the story of a prophetic ‘no’ and its consequences. These kinds of pages are usually not written or recounted, because they are those of the inner and outer turmoil of the prophets (and ours). They are the rough drafts, the first versions of the chapters written, crumpled and discarded. And yet that anonymous ancient author also wanted to give us the first two chapters. And, perhaps, he did so not only for the narrative economy, merely to enrich and embellish the dramatic plot of the story. The first two chapters brought us into the workshop of vocations, into the often dusty workshops where artisans and artists compose their works, into the untidy studies where writers generate their characters (and where, from time to time, characters generate their authors). The Bible has taken us into the ‘wine cellar’ of God's house, into the intimacy of the secret dialogue between Elohim and his prophets. It has told us using its ancient narrative code, which still manages to speak to us, at least a little, at least to some. And so we understand that the distance that separates the beginning of chapter 3 from that of chapter 1 is the space of freedoms - of God and of Jonah. It is the place of time and therefore of history, because in those first two chapters that young and inexperienced prophet became an adult, and he did so in the only way possible on earth: by seeking his place in the world without settling for what life or God had planned for him.

In the ethical and spiritual narrative space of the first two chapters, Jonah, son of Amittai, became Jonah the prophet; at first he was one of the many prophets trained by the prophetic schools of the North, but then he became someone who freely decided to occupy the place that had already been assigned to him. And even when he finally realized that the two places were one and the same, that one place in the world was no longer the same as before: now he has chosen it, he has said yes to a destiny that within that free yes has become a score written and interpreted by Jonah together with God. Every vocation is a meeting of two yeses; it is a pact between two gratuities, a marriage of two freedoms which are different and equal in dignity.

Who knows if when in the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son, he wasn’t also thinking of Jonah (who is cited often in the Gospels). Jonah began his story with a no, he went in the opposite direction of home (the good one); he ended up in the wrong company, there he was caught up in a storm (famine) and at the end of his descent, from the bottom of the pigsty he ‘got up’, in those depths he reversed the course of his life: and he returned. YHWH didn't say a word when Jonah departed. He did not prevent him from starting his descent towards Tarshish, he left him completely free and with all the costs of becoming an adult. Like the father of the prodigal son - when the son returned home the Father did not address any words of reproach to him: just an embrace, a ring, sandals and a banquet. As in Jonah: with chapter 3 the story between Jonah and God resumed without any word of reproach or disappointment from YHWH. Two silences before and two silences after, because silence is the most beautiful word in departing and in returning home. In Luke's parable, the acorns of the pigsty are no less important than the fatted calf, because the value and meaning of the banquets at home are fully understood only after envying the pigs for their acorns. As with Jonah.

The small difference between the beginning of chapter 1 (“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah...") and the beginning of chapter 3, is all contained in that second time: ‘Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time’. This second time is not a ‘second chance’ that God gave to Jonah. It is much more. It is the resurrection of Jonah. Resurrections, ours and that of Jesus which is different, are not the second chance given by life or by someone: they are yesterday’s life reborn after a real death and then it never dies again (if Jonah still speaks to us it is because he defeated death). Without that improbable and scandalous ‘no’, Jonah would have remained one of the many prophets of Israel remembered in a few lines in the Books of Kings. That death in the belly of the great fish generated another Jonah who when he is called for ‘the second time’ is not simply the returned son who is raised up: he is the resurrected son, alive to a different life after the ‘three days’ spent in the belly-tomb.

The feast of the fatted calf celebrated a resurrection that had already begun in the pigsty, the tomb began to empty in the cry of Golgotha, the yes of the second Jonah had begun in the sea towards Tarshish. Every day, all over the earth, there are banquets of resurrections celebrated with acorns, but we do not see them and we do not celebrate because we look for them in the field of Joseph of Arimathea and we flee from the Golgothas of the world. Even in the story of Jonah there is the ‘older brother’, the character who embodies meritocratic logic: let us, the readers, be amazed because God did not reproach or punish Jonah for his disobedience and restored trust to him again as if he had never said his ‘no’ - we like meritocracy very much because it offers us a wonderful tool to condemn the demerits of others: but the biblical God repeats to us: ‘not in my name’.

The Jonah of chapter 3 is no longer the Jonah of chapter 1, but neither is YWHW the same as we will see. Meister Eckhart, at the height of his theological and mystical experience, in one of his best-known sermons (‘Blessed are the poor’) went as far as saying a paradoxical and extraordinary phrase: “I pray God to rid me of God”; perhaps to tell us that to experience the beatitude of the poor, the poverty of the gospel must extend to the unthinkable: to reach the poverty of God. That is, to lose the idea of God in order to begin the experience of God.

The Prophets and we ordinary people too, spend a good part of our lives dialoguing with the idea of God, with the image of God that we have created for ourselves over the years in perfect good faith. Sometimes, as we become adults, we manage to free ourselves from the idea of God (spiritual adulthood is mainly this) and, an even rarer event, a new life can begin in a relationship with God freed from the idea-idol-image of God that we had built in our own image and likeness. This is also one of the meanings of the biblical commandment not to make an image of God. It is difficult for this spiritual poverty to arrive as an intentional and voluntary search: it almost always arrives without being sought, on that day when life bestows this poverty upon us along the journey to Tarshish. We experience it as the greatest ruin: we forget everything, we no longer know how to pray, yesterday's life seems only deception and illusion. We go down to the bottom of the ship, fall asleep and just want to die. We do not understand that that hold is the chrysalis where yesterday's caterpillar is blossoming into a butterfly. So Jonah’s escape explains something important about the experience of liberation from the God of the profession of prophet and the birth of the prophetic vocation, the one that comes only after the poverty of God, when we have the fundamental experience of 'spiritual chastity', essential to the prophets, because in its absence they become masters of the voice that inhabits them.

The first word of YHWH to Jonah was the command of a sovereign addressed to one of his court officials; the second word was a vocation, a call addressed to a free adult man ‘resurrected’ in the belly of the sea. Many vocations are not fulfilled because one answers‘ yes’ immediately and remains all their life in the prophetic ‘profession’, without a resurrection; others are blocked by friends and companions who, worried about the consequences of disobedience, bar the door of the house and life passes in a constant regret of a denied freedom; some escape but sink during the storm, simply because the ship is sinking and life doesn’t give them time to make the return journey; others, once saved by the fish, make its belly their warm and comfortable ‘comfort zone’ and do not return to land to resume, as nomads, the free and poor race to Nineveh. But those who make it to the second call become part of the free community of the resurrected prophets, who save us every day from the impending destruction of our city.

"Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’" (3:3-4). Jonah arrived in Nineveh. There he carried out his prophetic task. He proclaimed his message that the author leaves ambiguous: it could mean that there were only forty days left for Nineveh and then it would be destroyed, but also that the people of Nineveh still had forty days to repent and avoid destruction. It is likely that Jonah thought of the first meaning (the prophets do not always like the message they announce), but the text clearly tells us how the inhabitants of Nineveh interpreted it: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (3:5). Those inhabitants believed in God, and they converted. So they believed Jonah, they thought he was a true prophet. And they were right. They couldn’t know about the ‘no’, the ship to Tarshish, the storm, the big fish. But we know and we thank that ancient author for telling us about it.

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