Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Lent
Rising From Our Thrones

Readings: Jon 3:1-10; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Luke 11:29-32

Two groups of people are presented to us in the readings of today. One is likely to be historical, while the other is probably mythical. One belongs to the story of Jesus, the other to the fable of Jonah. One is part of the Chosen race of Israel, the other to the gentile nation of Nineveh. Here we have two different groups of people from very distinct contexts.

But there is something more that separates and distinguishes them, something far more significant than time and race and context. One group is praised by Jesus, while the other is sharply criticized. And the surprising thing is that Jesus seems to favor the gentiles over the Jews, the outsiders over the insiders, the sinners over the saved. This generation is an evil generation… At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it… Why?

What gives the gentile sinners of Nineveh the right, what makes them worthy to arise and to condemn the exalted and chosen Jewish generation of Jesus? Is it not because they have all first done what their king is described as doing in the first reading? Royal ruler though he was, the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Jesus finds the Ninevites worthy to arise in righteous condemnation only because, following their king’s example, they have first arisen from the thrones of their own sinfulness and repented in humility and contrition. Like the prodigal son of Luke’s gospel, they have first made the difficult decision to admit their guilt, to arise and go to my father (Luke 15:18). As a result, God does not spurn their contrite and humbled hearts. God listens to their plea and repents of his plan to destroy their city.

In contrast, the people of Jesus’ generation continue to sit stubbornly on the thrones of their arrogance. They take pride in their own status as the Chosen people. They seek a sign. But it is not just any sign that they seek. They seek only that sign which will confirm them in their feeling of superiority. They are willing only to recognize a sign that allows them to remain enthroned in their own self-righteousness. They are unwilling even to entertain the possibility that they may be wrong. Although Jesus has performed numerous signs of power, and even when Jesus manifests himself, on the Cross, as the ultimate sign of God’s love and compassion, they will not recognize him. They will refuse to acknowledge Jesus because, even more than Jonah, he is the sign that calls to repentance. He is the sign that requires all first to rise from their thrones in humility and contrition.

And this too is the sign that we are trying to heed in this great season of Lent. We, whose foreheads have been signed with ashes, are spending these forty days praying for the grace truly to arise and return to our Father, who will not spurn a heart contrite and humbled…

From what thrones are we being invited to arise today?

1 comment:

  1. Everytime I read this moving account of the conversion of the people of Nineveh, I never fail to be surprised by the abruptness, almost to a man, of their conversion. Jonah preached and they responded. What "struck" them to respond so resolutely and immediately? I guess we would never know.

    But what I do know are lessons taught by the Ninevites. The first is how their supreme ruler down to the lowliest in the land put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted. Can you imagine the elite and aristocracy in Nineveh abandoning their lifestyles for an austere fast? Secondly, those in authority became authentic leaders by setting the example. And not only did the people fast, we read that even the animals fasted. While I used to snigger at this, I reflect on my own less-than-wholesome fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the reality sank in.

    Today, the Ninevites have been a sign to me. Amen.