St Ephrem’s interpretation of the story of Prophet Jonah, as explained by Rodoljub Kubat in his article titled ‘Memra of Ephrem the Syrian on Jonah and the Repentance of the Ninevites’, provides a wonderful insight into how we are called to love others.
The story of Jonah begins with God calling him to go to Nineveh and warn its people that, if they do not turn from their wicked ways, the city will be destroyed. Jonah ignores God’s command and boards a ship in the opposite direction, towards Tarshish. The ship is battered by tumultuous seas, and the crew realise that this happens because Jonah failed to obey God. They are left with no option but to throw him overboard. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days of prayer, repentance, and thanksgiving, Jonah is spat out onto dry land. He goes to Nineveh and delivers God’s warning. The people of Nineveh fast, pray, give alms, and show extraordinary transformation.
However, Jonah does not rejoice with God at their repentance. The Ninevites are enemies of the Jews, and deep down his heart is still hardened; he does not believe they deserve God’s love and mercy. Jonah is being shown a lesson in God’s limitless love. In St Ephrem’s words:
God is good and gracious,
And will not destroy the image he has made.
A painter who designs a picture,
Preserves it with care;
How much rather will the Good protect,
His living and rational image!
It is the repentant response of the Ninevites, as opposed to the hardened hearts of the Jewish people, that is the focus of St Ephrem’s homily. As he wrote:
Jonah saw this, and wonder seized him,
He blushed for the children of his own people.
He saw the Ninevites were victorious,
And he wept for the seed of Abraham;
He saw the seed of Canaan in sound mind,
While the seed of Jacob was infatuated;
He saw the uncircumcised cut to the heart,
While the circumcised had hardened it.
Kubat explains that Ephrem’s homily is a response to issues emerging within his own Christian community in Nisibis. The community faced deep divisions because of the disciples of Bardaisan and Arius. The community was also a minority among the Gentiles—predominantly former Assyrians from the east. St Ephrem criticised his Christian community for their hardened hearts; their failure to embrace outsiders; and their adherence to rigid and legalist concepts of God and the Church. His approach is very relevant today. Our Church experiences similar circumstances, no longer living in a predominantly Christian culture. Regardless of the circumstances, it is a temptation for the Church to close in on itself, and attach importance to traditionalism, nationality, language, and a strict adherence to the letter of the law. St Ephrem reminds us that God’s limitless love is the same for all nations, people, and cultures.
The lesson we take from Jonah is that repentance involves a change of heart, continually dying to our sins, attachments, addictions, anxieties, and prejudices. This process can be beautifully understood through the metaphor of the Australian bushfires, which are a natural part of our landscape. Bushfires help to eliminate the rapid growth of toxic weeds that strangle native flora, which survive the fire because they have adapted to it and even rely on it for growth and regeneration. Just a few weeks after the fires, the vibrant green growth, beautifully contrasted against the black charcoal tree stumps, begins to emerge. In his essay titled ‘Love without Limits,’ Fr Lev Gillet reflected upon the Eternal Fire of the Burning Bush that transforms each one us in the following way:
The fire that burns the bush without destroying it is a fire nourished by nothing apart from itself. It subsists alone, by itself. And of itself it spreads abroad in infinite growth. This fire does not destroy the wood of the bush. Rather, it purifies the wood. It eliminates everything in the wood that is merely brambles and thorns. Yet it does not deform the bush. It respects its original structure, even while it eliminates its superfluous growth. It renews without killing. It transforms the wood itself into fire, a lasting fire. … Like the flame of the Bush, I am Love that gives endlessly of itself. I am that generosity that knows no bounds. No one can say of my Love: it extends to this point, and no further.
By Monica Ibrahim