When Eyes are Opened
Talk Given at Our Advent Mini Retreat, 2009
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding. Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.”
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
Jonah 3, 1-10
Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.
Jonah 3, 9
As far as I’m concerned, this story of repentance relates the most inspiring miracle in the entire Bible. Nineveh was the leading city in the ancient world, and Israel’s most hated enemy. Assyria, the nation it ruled, was the greatest superpower on earth. The Ninevites were a proud people and, like other proud people, they were impressed with their own accomplishments. Their successes made them self-reliant.
From our point of view, though, the most important thing about Nineveh was the fact that it was spiritually blind. Its actions were marked by evil and violence. Jonah saw the evil, and he wanted this evil, along with the evil-doers, destroyed. God, however, saw something else. He saw how much better life would be in Nineveh if the Ninevites were cured of their blindness.
The Ninevites in this marvelous story were utterly transformed. Their nation passed out of darkness and into light. The story here is not about individual repentance, it’s about systemic repentance. What is systemic repentance about?
In the Beatitudes we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus may as well have said, “How happy are the blind who regain their sight.” The poor in spirit are those who are dependent upon others for their well-being. They can’t do for themselves. The poor in spirit can’t simply will themselves to be happy – they need a ‘leg up’. It isn’t hard at all to find someone who’s poor in spirit. The hard part is finding that someone in the mirror. Something prevents us from noticing the poverty in ourselves. That something is spiritual blindness.
When the king of Nineveh got the news that Jonah was preaching, he “rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.” How happy, how blessed was the king of Nineveh! While he was still sitting on the throne, he looked pretty good to himself. No one could convince him then that he was poor. No one was going to tell him that he was dependent. It wasn’t until he got down and sat in the ashes, that he recovered his sight and got a good look at himself.
Also in the Beatitudes we read, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Righteousness is the very thing that people long for once their eyes are opened. The king said, “every man shall turn from his evil way.” The king who loved power became a king who loved justice. Before he was able to see, the king was only interested in having others puff him up. He was always hungry and thirsty for more because what he was getting wasn’t satisfying.
In the gospel of Luke we read that Jesus used the story of Jonah to teach he crowds. “At the judgment”, Jesus said, “the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.” (Lk 11, 32) We should put our confidence in the fact that ‘there is something greater than Jonah here.’ Jesus, the light of the world, is with us to help us regain our spiritual sight – not only for us individually, but for us collectively.
When we see clearly, we can’t help but notice the fact that many, if not most people are frustrated by their inability to find real satisfaction. I’ve noticed that this is true for people both inside and outside of the Church. There is something greater than Jonah at Church; but that is no guarantee that everyone will follow the example set by the Ninevites and allow their eyes to be opened.
How can we experience collective transformation? How can we see our families transformed, or our parishes, or our schools and workplaces? The first step, I think, is to allow God to raise your expectation that something is going to happen. Jonah said, “forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” As messages go, that one was a bit on the gloomy side; but it got the Ninevites to think about their collective destiny. God had His eye on Nineveh. Does He have an eye on your family? Does the group you belong to matter to the LORD? Maybe I should say it this way, “Are you acting as if God is paying attention to you and to the people you’re with?”
Another Beatitude is this: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The king of Nineveh said, “Every man shall turn from the violence he has in hand.” This was something new coming from the king’s mouth. In previous days he hadn’t been concerned about the violence around him. He hadn’t even noticed it. Once the word of God reached his ears he decided it was time to wage peace. What would it mean to wage peace where you are?
When we can see, we can see things that aren’t very attractive; and when we gain moral clarity we notice the violence that is all around us. Keep in mind that violence doesn’t have to end in bodily injury to be violence. Every time a person goes through the day as if other people were simply obstacles in his path, he’s being violent all around. When we think of others in terms of the good they might do us, instead of thinking about the goodness God wants to give them, we become blind to their humanity and start treating them as if they were things, as if they were the means to our ends. That’s violence.
When people live lives of competition and manipulation they’re surrounding themselves with violence. What’s the antidote? The antidote is to behave as if justice and compassion mattered to you more than getting your own way. That’s hard enough to do when you’re at Mass, imagine doing that in your ‘natural environment’. Imagine saying to yourself, a hundred times a day, “I’m going to treat the next person I meet with justice and compassion.” Goes against the grain, doesn’t it?
There’s a saying in sports that when a good player gets into the game you notice how well he or she is playing, but when a great player gets into the game you notice how well everyone is playing. It would be good if you could develop a reputation at work, or in your community as the one who cared about others and about doing the right thing; but it would be great if you could get the people around you to be as enthusiastic about those things as you are.
The final ingredient in collective transformation is mercy. “Blessed are the merciful”. Jonah preached about a God who cared about justice without showing mercy; but the king was smarter than the one who was giving him instruction. “Who knows,” the king said, “God may relent and forgive.”
When we’re part of the system, when we’re immersed in blindness and violence, we accommodate ourselves to bitterness and resentment. Things don’t get out of kilter until God opens our eyes. That’s when we start to feel like Jonah did. We’re tempted to want to bring the whole system down. It’s one thing for God to ask me to devote myself to justice and compassion, but how am I going to deal with the rest of them, the ones who are only ‘looking out for number one’?
If we’re ever to see God’s mercy, we’re going to have to be God’s mercy. Anyone can take stock of the damage people do when they’re violent and blind; it takes divine perspective to yearn for the happiness of the one who is still treating you like a thing instead of a person. Just think of the people who are causing trouble where you are. It’s not enough to simply want them the stop making other people miserable. You have to go beyond that and start wanting them to experience the joy that comes when one is hungry and thirsty for things that will actually give satisfaction.
God wants us to know real joy, and the way for us to fully experience joy is to be surrounded by people who see beyond the temptations of violence and greed. Who are these marvelous people? They’re the very people who are trying your patience now – but they’re illuminated by something greater than Jonah. It’s up to you to bring that light. It’s up to you to be that light. “No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand so that those who enter might see the light” (Lk 11, 33) The world you long for is the world your in – illuminated by the light of the world. The promised Jerusalem is your own Nineveh just as soon as people are able to see.