Over… and over again

Jonah , the great fish and the city of Ninevah. Herrad of Landsberg  c. 1180.

This week’s lectionary blog looks at the meaning of repentance, with a focus both on Jonah 3.1-5,10 and Mark 1.14-20

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe


I appreciate the physicality of the Hebrew language. The way, for example that when you want to speak about someone standing ‘before’ you, you literally say that they are standing ‘to your face’. Or the fact that the word for ‘glory’ ultimately derives from a verbal root that means ‘heavy’.

The way that the Hebrew language speaks of ‘repentance’ is another example. The most common Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is teshuvah.  This derives from the verb shuv  whose basic meaning is ‘return’. So ‘repentance’ is not about fixing a mathematical puzzle that has gone wrong, or making up something that has fallen short. It is rather about returning to a relationship with God that had been fractured or grown tired. It is about going on a journey, long or short, to find God again.

There’s a lovely chant by the Roman Catholic Benedictine monks of Weston Priory that exactly captures this – even though the chant is linked to the Book of Hosea rather than the Book of Jonah!

Hosea (Come Back To Me) – YouTube

One of the questions that the book of Jonah poses to me is ‘who needs repentance’? Is it the inhabitants of Ninevah, a city renowned in the ancient world both for its size and its cruelty, or is it Jonah himself because he is so oblivious to God’s grace? Or is it both? It has been astutely pointed out by Trevor Dennis that the equivalent of God sending Jonah to Ninevah would be a Jewish rabbi being sent to Berlin to preach publicly during the Nazi era.

In one sense Jonah is the most successful biblical prophet of all time. He only says a short sentence (in Hebrew just five words) ‘Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3.4) and the whole of the city – including its animal population – repented. Had Jeremiah been around at the time we could imagine that he might have been very envious of Jonah’s remarkable  success! Like many other readers I do think that the mention of the repentant cattle with their sackcloth (and the fishy story in chapters 1 and 2) is intended as a hint that we are not supposed to take the Book of Jonah as literal history. Jonah is often thought to have been a book written in the post-exilic period to challenge the hardening of attitudes to the Gentile world which was a development in Judah at this time.

Pope Benedict XVI has written on this (his words date to 2003 before he was elected as Pope):

The book of Jonah is not narrating events that took place in the distant past; it is a parable. In the mirror of this parable-story both the future and the present become visible. The present is explained over and over again to different generations, and it is only the light of the future – ultimately in that light that comes from God – that the present can be understood and lived correctly. This parable is consequently a prophecy. It sheds God’s light on time and thereby clarifies for us the direction we must take so that the present may unfold into the future and not go to ruin.

I think Pope Benedict’s description of Jonah as a parable ‘shedding God’s light on time’ is astute. Encouraging all manner and sorts of people to ‘return’ to him is just what God does. He always has and he always will.  It is an essential part of his job description. One of the intriguing features of the section of the Book of Jonah is that it ends with the comment, ‘God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them and did not do it’. (Jonah 3.10) Older translations often used the expression ‘God repented about the calamity…’ which was, and is, a challenging idea for some. But can we really speak of God himself ‘repenting’? it is certainly true that the Hebrew word here is not shuv – but a form of the verbal root nhm. (A word which also appears to describe God’s ultimate graciousness after the episode with the golden calf in Exodus 32.14).The root nhm however has a wide and intriguing range of meanings – for example it lies behind the evocative call of Isaiah 40.1 ‘Comfort (nhmu), O comfort (nhmu) my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ There is I think something profoundly significant in this link between God as comforter and God as the one who is ready to change his own mind when he receives a people’s repentance.

‘Repent’ is of course also one of the key words in this week’s short Gospel reading which begins by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel’ and then moves into his call of his disciples (Mark 1.14-15).

There is just one thing that I want to draw to your attention, that for me offers a further insight into the meaning of ‘repentance’. In Mark’s Gospel (and the other synoptic Gospels) Peter is summoned ‘Follow me’ here at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus.  But in John’s Gospel this call to ‘Follow me’ is not addressed to Peter till near the very end of the story, when in John 21 Peter is once again fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and once again he meets Jesus on the lake shore. John 21 is a story both about Peter’s repentance for his denial and his enduring relationship with and love for Jesus, and how the two belong together. And in light of our brief exploration of the Book of Jonah it is intriguing to realise just how Peter is addressed, ‘Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?’ (John 21.15).  

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