Walking through Nineveh
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Reluctant Jonah is preaching to Nineveh. A story that captures the heart of the season of Lent. A city that is apparently embroiled in enough evil that its destruction appeared eminent.
Historically, there’s a lot of corroborating evidence for this story. Jonah is believed to have lived in the 9th-8th century BC. Nineveh was indeed a hugely growing and prosperous capital of the Assyrian empire all during the 8th and 7th centuries. During that period, it was the largest city in the world for about 50 years. It still exists today as the eastern half of the city of Mosul and is still called Nineveh by residents.
At the time of Jonah, the total area of Nineveh comprised about 7 square kilometers (1,730 acres), and had 15 great entrance gates. It had an elaborate system of 18 canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh from about 40 miles away. The city likely had around 100,000-150,000 residents. It housed a magnificent palace with at least 80 rooms with large numbers of tablets, sculptures, massive winged Mesopotamian lions weighing 30 tons, carved stone walls depicting historical scenes, and untold other art. The gardens of this palace are sometimes thought to be one of the ancient wonders of the world: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
When reflecting on this passage; I was caught by the fact it took 3 days to walk through the city while preaching. I tried to imagine what walking through a city like this must have been like. It very likely had many different neighborhoods and districts as today’s cities do. There was the grand palace and gardens. As center of the empire, there were likely all manner of legislative/government/military buildings. There were probably many temples and religious buildings. As an early center of trade routes up the Tigris, it likely had many kinds of markets and trade districts. There was likely financial districts, districts of homes/families/living areas. There were probably schools of all kinds. There were probably centers of fabrication, crafts, and trades of all kinds (pottery, leather, bronze, iron, etc). There was even probably red light districts. In short, every kind of area and part of daily life.
In reflection, I thought about the people who lived and worked in those areas. What must this been like to be at whatever you were doing and hearing his call of pending destruction? People engaged in business, education, prayer, cooking, etc. Things we do every day today. But wait, don’t I do those things too? My life isn’t that different than the parts of this city…
Just like Jonah’s walk through the city, maybe we too need to walk through all the districts of our life this Lent and preach repentance. Perhaps it’s a good time to sit down and reflect on our ‘financial district’. Are we using our money and treasures as God would intend? Do we tithe and support services to the poor? Do we give to organizations that follow Catholic social teaching and are financially transparent/responsible?
Maybe it’s time to proclaim repentance to our work and our ‘professional district’. What are my career goals and are they lead and guided by the teachings of Christ? Am I fair and honest in my dealings or have I embezzled or stolen money or property from work? Do I avoid slander, gossip, and maliciousness towards coworkers? Am I a servant leader or serve primarily myself and my desires? Do I spend enough time with my primary vocations to prayer and raising my family/supporting my spouse (if you have them) or do those take second seat to earning money or career advancement?
What about the district of my home? Am I present enough to the care of my family and home life? Do I get along with my neighbor? Do I help out with family chores and do my part? Do I nurture my relationships with those in my household? Am I estranged or holding grudges? Do I avoid spending time with them for my own pursuits?
What about my spiritual district? Do I pray enough? Is God really the center of my life, or only a side effort in my plans?
What about the hospital and food districts? Do I take care of myself and recognize my body is a temple of the Lord – or do I abuse it with dangerous activities, overeating, substance abuse, etc.
What about the educational district? Do I take time to grow in my wisdom, knowledge of scripture/God via good reading, or using my various gifts of intellect by developing them? Or do I consume endless social media and lower forms of entertainment that numb the mind?
What about the ‘red light district’ in our lives? Do we have hidden or secret lives we live (especially online, professionally, or in poor relationships)? Do I watch pornography, abuse substances for pleasure, engage in sex with people who are not my spouse? Are there things I do in private I would be embarrassed if others knew about?
Try to imagine all the districts in a big city near you – and all the different areas of life each city needs to serve. We too have these areas in our own lives. During Lent, it’s the perfect time to reflect on them all and let Jonah preach repentance to each part of our city.
In some number of days we too will reach the end of our lives and must make an account of how we spent them. But in Christ and during Lent we can visit the different districts of our life with prayer as the prophet. We can reflect and listen to any need for repentance. We can find forgiveness in the sacrament of confession, find the grace to make real changes for the better, and then find salvation and reunion with the God who loves us more than we love ourselves.