An unlikely prophet

Originally Appeared in : 9924-11-21-2019

Of the many priests who taught me while in seminary, the most joy-filled one was an Irish Dominican friar, Father Paul Murray. He was a man of deep prayer, faithful to the Church and always ready to tell a good story. In one of his courses titled “God and the Poets,” we discussed the presence of humor in Scripture. We also considered passages written by Saint Thomas Aquinas where Father Murray found traces of humor in the great theologian’s works.


Until taking this course I had been familiar with the Old Testament story of Jonah, but had never thought of finding humor in it. Everyone knows that Jonah was swallowed up by a whale for three days and that he preached a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh, but if you take five minutes out of your busy schedule, you will laugh by reading this very brief Old Testament book in its entirety.


Jonah was called by God to leave his country to preach to the Ninevites. Disobedient, Jonah took a ship in a different direction, but a terrible storm arose. Jonah was thrown out from the ship after he confessed that he had been disobedient to his God. A giant fish swallowed him and took him to shore. Jonah reluctantly obeyed God and preached to the Ninevites, that they may repent from their evil ways. Once the king heard the message he ordered the citizens of Nineveh to fast, to cover themselves with sackcloth (including their animals) and to repent.


One would think that after the repentance of Nineveh Jonah would be satisfied that his mission had been successful. Yet Jonah’s response is as unexpected as it is humorous. We read that “[the repentance of Nineveh] greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.” Jonah curses God because he knows that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and repenting of punishment.” Jonah is so angry with God’s mercy that he wishes he would die. This prophet is an unlikely prophet.


Despite Jonah’s anger, God makes a plant grow where he is sitting, and Jonah is very happy with the shade it provides. The next morning however a worm eats the plant, a strong wind blows, and the sun beats down on the poor prophet. Jonah says to God, “I have a right to be angry — angry enough to die.” The book ends with God scolding Jonah for being so concerned about the insignificant dead plant while he is concerned with the Ninevites and their repentant animals. (Have you ever imagined cows wearing sackcloth?)


Philosophers state that humor is caused by placing together unusual or unexpected events, objects, or ideas. Humor is found in the coming together of incongruities. The unusual and unexpected anger towards the success of his work makes Jonah a puzzling and humorous character. The humor of the book reminds me it is always important to laugh at myself and to recall that if Jonah was able to fulfill God’s will faithfully despite his difficulties, there is great hope for everyone.


Father Pablo Migone is chancellor of the Diocese of Savannah.


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