Bible studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
“Many Cultures, One Goal – Life” (Jonah 1:1-16)
By Guido Dotti*
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. 4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” 7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” 9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) 11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” 12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
The story of the prophet Jonah tells us about a tortuous road of a call to conversion and about God’s infinite mercy both towards the reluctant prophet and towards “the great city in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons … and a large number of animals” (Jonah 4:11).
The first chapter shows us the great responsibility of every believer to go where the Lord wants to be heard. When this road seems to be too difficult and tiring, the events of life and our companions on the way, who at times do not share our faith, bring us back to human solidarity and to the right path.
“Arise! Go to Nineveh … Jonah set out on the road to go to Tarsish.” It is not exactly a pilgrimage that Jonah undertook. He runs away in the opposite direction; he runs away thinking about his own “peace,” seeking to avoid dispute and hostility; he renounces bringing to that “great city” the call to conversion that would have restored justice.
But every road of conversion that we undertake can be transformed, for us and for those we encounter, into a pilgrimage of justice and of peace.
The Lord asks his prophet – who does not have to foretell the future, but to profferwords in God’s name – to go towards Israel’s enemy, the great power of Assyria, to invite it to stop committing injustices and propagating war. Nineveh, the capital of the kingdom of Assur, lies on the banks of the Euphrates, to the east of Israel, while Jonah flees towards Tarsish, at the western end of the Mediterranean. In the Biblical text, however, this is not a simple flight. The repetition of the Hebrew wordjarad(to descend) describes a progressive descent towards hell. Jonah “descends” to Jaffa, then “descends” towards Tarsish, then “descends towards the place most hidden on the ship,” is thrown into the sea and swallowed by the great fish, and then “descends” into the profundity of the abyss. Sent to speak about conversion to peace and to justice, Jonah becomes mute; he shuts himself up in a dead silence, he descends towards darkness and there falls asleep, hoping perhaps to awake only upon arrival in Tarsish, far from the Lord.
But the Lord’s voice is powerful and finds those that listen to it, not only the wind and the sea — as the story proceeds to recount and as will happen with Jesus (Mark 4:41) — but even the sailors. The sailors are of different faiths and cultures — “each one of them invokes his own God” (Jonah 1:5) — but find a common ground in the danger that threatens all and in the desire to confront it without the loss of any of them. They ask Jonah to join them in this prayer, which is raised to many divinities, but with only one intention: the salvation of all.
The sailors, respecting the law of the sea that no one be abandoned when danger threatens, do not resign themselves even when “the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7), indicating him as responsible for the storm. They make him come out of his silence, they question him, they try to understand, they want to know where he comes from, to what people he belongs, and what his profession is.
The sailors of different faiths, draw from Jonah a confession of faith in “YHWH, God of heaven, who created the earth and the sea.” He, a prophet of that God, would not have named him, would have remained in silence, had it not been for the pressing question of the sailors. Paradoxically, it is the sailors, and not Jonah, who “implore the Lord”, the God of Israel. After having tried in vain to save by their own forces the ship and all the people on board, the sailors resign themselves to throwing Jonah into the sea, but first invoke the Lord, that he may not impute to them innocent blood.
When calm weather returns, the sailors are seized by “fear of YHWH” and offer sacrifices and vows. What Jonah did not do — pray to the Lord God of Israel — that the sailors do; what should have been the fruit of the prophet’s preaching — conversion to the living and true God — derives from the rectitude of these men who recognize the Lord’s actions in the events of history.
The image of dangers in a sea journey and the sharing of hopes and fears by sailors and passengers of various backgrounds, cultures, and faiths, remind me of one of the first ecumenical experiences of a young Orthodox priest, who became a protagonist of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century: Emilianos Timiadis.
As a young chaplain of sailors in Belgium in the early 1950s, the future Metropolitan Emilianos realized that the problems of every chaplain were the same. In particular, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sailors are together for long periods of navigation, without the possibility to participate in the liturgical life of their respective churches. Was it possible to have for them a catechesis and pastoral care at least during their stays on land?
Father Emilianos contacted the Catholic chaplains of the association Apostolatus maris,and very soon some Anglican and Reformed pastors joined them. The hospitality and the culinary talents of Father Emilianos’s mother assured that for several years about forty pastors and priests of various churches met together twice a month around a table piled high with Mediterranean dishes to share the hopes and worries of their pastoral ministry.
The solicitude of a pastor for the persons under his care and the courage of a handful of churchmen preoccupied that the sea’s fury not take possession of the souls and spirit of the poor sailors, become a prophecy of a newly found unity of Christians. The bark of the church can confront the breakers in a common faith that the Lord wants all “to have life and to have it in abundance” (John 10:10).
Questions for reflection and discussion
- No wind is favorable to the sailor who does not know at which port to land? (Seneca). How can contrary winds be exploited to lead all together to the desired port of peace and justice?
- How can our different cultures, backgrounds, faiths, and church membership become a motive for a common search of the good for all?
Invitations for actions
- Faced with the phenomenon of migration, to apply to land, too, the law of the sea, which is also the law of the mountain, because it is the law of humanity: whoever is in danger of life must be saved, always, everywhere.
- To include also the animals and our relations with animals in the conversion of our styles of life (Jonah 3:7–9).
*Brother Guido Dotti is a monk in the ecumenical monastic community of Bose, in Northern Italy. He has written extensively on Christian spirituality and interreligious dialogue. He is editor, with Tamara Grdzelidze, of A Cloud of Witnesses: Opportunities for Ecumenical Cooperation.
Commentaries on Jonah:
Jim Forest, The Root of War is Fear. Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Obris Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2016.
Apostolatus maris – Antwerpen: https://www.aposmar.be/pages/pages_sidebar_compleet.php?PAGEID=45
Metr. Emilianos Timiadis (1916-2008): http://www.centroecumenico.org/actualidad/ecumenismo-hoy/169-su-eminencia-emilianos-timiadis-metropolita-de-silyvria-en-el-recuerdo
European Agenda on Migration: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration_en
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/migrants/index.htm
Jesuit Refugee Services: http://en.jrs.net/about