Unless one attends daily mass today is the only time a Catholic will hear a passage from the book of Jonah, one of the so-called twelve “minor prophets” of the Old Testament. These prophets are not “minor” in the importance of their message but rather in the brevity of their works: while a few of them are a bit longer Jonah’s grand total of forty-eight verses of text hardly stacks-up in comparison to the “major” prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, each of which contains more than twelve-hundred verses.
Unfortunately we rarely get to hear from these inspired and passionate voices, in part because mass must be relatively concise and the time for proclamation of the scriptures is therefore necessarily brief, and in part because some of the words of these prophets are hard to understand outside of their original context and can be downright disturbing. A few of them, such as Obadiah and Nahum, are never read in the liturgy; others such as Haggai and Habakkuk only peek out of the Lectionary once or twice in the multi-year cycle of readings.
It is a good practice for Catholics to study the minor prophets since they bring much color and depth to our understanding of our faith and its roots in Judaism. Jesus himself would likely have memorized much of these books as a boy in the synagogue, and he could not have helped thinking of Nahum often during his ministry, basing his adult life out of the town named Capernaum, the “village of Nahum”—even if it may have been titled for a different Nahum. In another reference to the minor prophets Jesus turns to Hosea to rebuke the Pharisees who criticized his merciful disposition: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matt 9:13; Hos 6:6; cf. Matt 12:7).
Given the record of these prophets in spurring Israel to action and urging deeper fidelity to the Lord, what in particular does Jonah have to tell us today, so far removed from his time and culture? To find out we look to his proclamation in conjunction with that of today’s gospel reading—paired as it always is with the Old Testament reading. We discover that Jonah’s message is one of repentance in light of a coming judgment: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” (Jon 3:4); we further see that this stern reproach to the people of Nineveh (a pagan city whose residents were traditional enemies of Israel) is extended in the gospel to include all who would be Jesus’ followers: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
While Jesus’ words—the first he speaks in the gospel—are a bit milder, they are no less serious; in fact, his message is essentially the same as that of his prophetic forbear Jonah: repentance is necessary if one wishes to abide in the Lord’s friendship. For Christians, this means that being a citizen of the Kingdom of God requires a conscious decision to be converted from all that leads us away from God and to embrace all that is part of the gospel Jesus preached. As he indicates, the time to make this decision is now—“This is the time of fulfillment.” May the words of holy Jonah, “minor prophet” though he be, lead all of us to renew our conversion to Christ, so that Jesus’ own invitation may be received with freedom and joy, and we may all then share in the commission to follow: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.