Today is Wednesday of the first week of Lent. The first reading at Mass today was from the wry Book of Jonah, about a reluctant prophet. I read it with a deliberate slant, with hospitality on my mind.
Jonah goes to Nineveh, reluctantly, to warn the city that God will destroy them in 40 days. Unfortunately for him, they repent, and God opts not to wipe them out; he looks like a fool, just as he had predicted.
They “repented.” What does that mean?
Well, they fasted, didn’t even drink, and they put on sackcloth. The king joined the fast, and went out to sit in the ashes. That’s a familiar story; I’ve heard this stuff before. But it’s still pretty weird. Why did they do all that? Who were they trying to convince? What were they trying to say? What’s the connection between all that stuff and the preferred outcome – presumably, avoiding annihilation? Is there any discernible logic to it? And what does any of this have to do with repentance, whatever that it?
Augustine used Matthew 25 as a jumping-off point for understanding all of Scripture. Okay, can we?
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and welcome strangers and clothe the naked and tend to the sick and visit prisoners. In the fast in Nineveh, the people skipped food and water, and set aside their good clothes. Okay, the lists overlap; maybe there’s something here. Maybe.
Maybe this. Repentance is about changing direction, turning around, trying to get your heart right. And the point of a fast is to push that change along. We don’t know what the problem(s) were in Nineveh, but for sure they included something that ruptured or distorted relationships between God the people, and also among the people. All this fasting stuff does two things. It re-establishes a proper understanding of the relationship between God and us: everything we have is a gift from the Creator, and we depend on him for our daily bread. And also, although fast doesn’t address the difficulties of the poor, it is – or can be – an expression of solidarity with neighbors who are hungry or thirsty or cold (or, in the king’s act, homeless).
Maybe repentance is about right relationships with God and neighbor. And maybe fasting is can be a rational step toward repair.
(Book of Jonah. If you want a delight, read my cousin’s novel. It’s got nothing to do with all this fasting stuff, but it’s a quirky bit of thought-provoking joy. Set in New York, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas, it’s a love story – Jonah’s girlfriend is Judith the peg-pounder. The villain is a real estate mogul, although the novel was written before the Trump erumption; it is, after all, a novel about a prophet.)