Something Greater than Jonah is Here

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The Ninevites will rise at the judgment with this generation and will condemn it. They repented at the preaching of Jonah. Look something greater than Jonah is here.

Luke 11: 32

Once again in today’s gospel we hear Jesus, through the gospel writer, remind us that it is the marginal and despised foreigners that serve as signs of contradiction and judgment to the prevailing wisdom of the dominant and “self-justified” culture.  In this case, it is those who seek what they know to be missing and who recognize their need to change direction when challenged that are exemplars for the people of Israel. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that one of the greatest “blind spots” of American society was our inability to recognize the irony in our belief in our exceptionalism, in our naïve assumption that we are not “like the rest of humanity.” In the context of the Lenten call to repentance we can see that he is referencing how difficult it is for all of us to recognize, acknowledge, and repent of our own sinfulness.

As I awoke this morning, I, for some reason, became conscious of how measured and even mean is my generosity toward others. I desire to be nice to others, but I also want to measure out the time and care I offer to them. At some level I am always “calculating” how much the appeal and request of the other will cost me. And, of course, I have a highly secular and psychologized culture that reinforces my tendencies to give from “my excess” and not from “my want.” The personal irony is my inability to recognize that I am at once a believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ and also a believer in the gospel of self-actualization. In action, I live from the belief that what I give to others comes from a separate and autonomous self rather than realizing that “I” am only truly alive in self-surrender.

St. Teresa of Avila says that few human beings realize the fullness of the life God has given them because we settle for so little. Niebuhr wrote that as a country we find ourselves living fearfully and conflictually because we lack the irony to recognize the ways we live in illusion about ourselves and our cultural superiority. This is equally true of each of us as individuals. Lent calls us to recognize how small we have made our lives and our world through all the moment-to-moment ways we carefully parcel out our love and care for each other. This recognition, what the gospel calls repentance, is a painful one, for it denies another illusion to which we cling: namely, that we are always developing and maturing. It is painful to realize that even later in our lives we are still so distant from the Love that has given us life.

The concept of irony includes a sense of humor. While there is a painful side to the recognition of our illusions, there is also a humorous one. From a certain perspective, perhaps a more transcendent one, our pretense and fallibility can evoke an appreciative smile. Parents and teachers know well how the attempts and failings of their beloved children and students can evoke tenderness and love in them. The falls, literal and figurative, of those we love as they strive to develop and grow are a source of greater appreciation and love in us. The mystics say that contemplation is to see with the eye with which God sees us. If we can see ourselves more as God sees us, we can actually come to the kind of “sweet repentance” which leads not to shame and self-depreciation but to a recognition of the love and appreciation God has for us – and for our broken and sinful world.

Moonless darkness stands between,
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas Day.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

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