Poor Jonah. Spending three days in the belly of a whale suffering from acid reflux is bad enough. Spending ten minutes in Pope Francis' pulpit and being mangled before millions on YouTube is aggravated assault. Especially with Francis conscripting Jonah to rubber stamp his pan-religious day of prayer planned by the Ghostbusters V "Higher Committee" to boo away the pandemic.
"In the first reading we heard the story of Jonah, in a style of the time," preaches Pope Francis, in his sermon on the "Religious Paella Day of Prayer."
Francis conspiratorially claims "there was 'some pandemic,' we do not know, in the city of Nineveh, a 'moral pandemic' perhaps, the city was about to be destroyed." The pope doesn't tell us who was about to destroy the city. Can't be God, because Francis' God doesn't punish. Can't be nature, because the Ninevites weren't capitalist-populist-nationalists driving around in SUVs and belching forth carbon monoxide.
Slam the brakes! Flip to Jonah in your Bible. If you haven't been properly introduced, Jonah is a minor prophet who makes a major impact. Jesus quotes Jonah to talk about his own resurrection. But sandwiched between Obadiah and Micah, the Old Testament geezer isn't destined for celebrity status. Until Francis throws the dice and canonises Jonah patron saint of the Wuhan pandemic.
I will treat to Rome's yummiest gelato if you can spot "pandemic" in the book of Jonah, even in the New Reviled Standard Version. The Hebrew word raah is translated "evil." God calls his prophet to "cry out against it."
Foreigners and 'pagans' can come to know God just as surely as Israelite prophets (and popes!) can try to hide from God.
The prophet Nahum, not fluent in politically correct popespeak, will later tell us how Israel's "jealous," "avenging" and "wrathful" God wreaks "vengeance" on Nineveh and snuffs it out like a James Bond movie villain stubbing out his Cuban cigar.
At Casa Santa Marta, Francis' sermon picks up steam: "And God sends Jonah to preach to them: prayer and penance, prayer and fasting" (3: 7-8). Correct! Jonah doesn't go to Iraq (Nineveh's location) and sign a Human Fraternity covenant with the High Muckamuck of Assyria.
He doesn't call for an interfaith "you kiss my idol and I'll kiss yours" schmoozefest, swapping figurines of Ishtar and Yahweh with Nineveh's High Priestess in a gender inclusive globalised pantheon. Pope Francis blanks this out in his homily. "In the face of that pandemic, Jonah was frightened and ran away (1: 1-3)," he pontificates. Actually, no. What the Bible says is: "But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish."
Jonah was fleeing from his vocation. He didn't want to go and preach to the Ninevites. God telling Jonah to rattle his monotheist maracas before polytheists is like sending Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to sing Schubert's Winterreise at a drunken party for football hooligans.
Jonah would have preferred the job of a Transparency Enhancement Facilitator, i.e. window cleaner, to that of prophet.
So he sprints like Usain Bolt to Tarshish.
The Hebrew scholar Cyrus Gordon says that the biblical Tarshish was "a far-off and sometimes idealised port" and in popular imagination it became "a distant paradise."
Tarshish is exotic. It's Shangri-La. In Tarshish, Jonah will have a dream job, a wife with an hourglass figure, children with perfect teeth, a house with a white picket fence, and a perfect church with a Latin Mass priest and a cheesecake congregation. You see why Jonah wants to go to Tarshish.
Francis then commits a lapsus calami — a big boo-boo in his sermon. "Then the Lord called him for the second time, and he agreed to go and preach," he proclaims. Umm ... nope. That's not how it happens. God "hurls a great wind upon the sea causing a mighty tempest" and the cruise liner on which Jonah is sailing begins to go the way of the Titanic.
The tempest isn't triggered by global warming and Jonah doesn't need an "ecological conversion." But Francis doesn't mention the storm in his sermon because the theology of God intervening in creation and using nature to kick Jonah's backside doesn't fit with Francis' "nature never forgives, God always forgives" mantra.
It's only after Jonah gets heaved off the ship, slides down a whale's oesophagus, spends three claustrophobic days marinating in digestive juices, chants a psalm and gets vomited on to dry land does God call Jonah a second time. Only now does the recalcitrant prophet say: "I'll go and give the Ninevites an earful.
In reality, the novella of Jonah from start to finish contradicts the pontiff's fake
"Francis' gives a wide berth to the biblical text and jumps on his hobby horse: "And today all of us, brothers and sisters of every religious tradition, pray: a day of prayer and fasting, of penance, called by the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity."
"Perhaps there will be someone who will say, 'This is religious relativism and it cannot be done.' But how can we not pray to the Father of all? Everyone prays as he knows, how he can, according to his own culture," the pontiff adds.
That's the end of poor Jonah. From prophet, he's been turned into the pope's spin-doctor for a religious cafeteria that validates all religions as paths to God.
In reality, the novella of Jonah from start to finish contradicts the pontiff's fake religious pluralism. First, Israel's God sends a Jewish prophet to a pagan people to preach repentance.
Second, the sailors on Jonah's ship begin by praying each to "his god," but after Jonah has told them about Yahweh, they are converted and call out to Yahweh. They even offer sacrifice to Yahweh.
Third, Jonah can't stomach the idea of the Ninevites — Israel's enemy — hearing the gospel, repenting and being saved. Like Francis, he limits God's compassion to those like himself. The narrator is making "the case that the worship of Yahweh is not limited to those who live within the confines of Judah and Israel ... Foreigners and 'pagans' can come to know God just as surely as Israelite prophets (and popes!) can try to hide from God," writes Old Testament scholar James D. Nogalski.
Still Jonah kicks up a post-tantrumic disorder and delivers his message to the pagans in just five Hebrew words: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Jonah is so reluctant to proclaim his Israelite faith — he doesn't even mention Yahweh. The narrator uses the generic "Elohim" in the section dealing with the conversion of Nineveh.
Gloriously, the entire city from king to donkey repent with fasting and sackcloth. God relents. Jonah is mega-mad with God because God hasn't destroyed Israel's enemies. "The book of Jonah was written to address a theological problem: how were Israel and its people supposed to relate to those around them," emphasises Nogalski.
Let's help Pope Francis with his theological problem: how is the Church supposed to relate to those around it? Heck, not by fraternising in a pan-religious bear-hug but by proclaiming the sovereignty of the biblical God over creation and over all humanity and by calling all people everywhere to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
(Originally published in Church Militant. To comment on this piece, click here)