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Education: Should our Children Swallow the Whale?
Many years ago, when I was still at the receiving end of much biblical fundamentalism, I took part in a poetry recitation competition. The winner of the free choice section delivered with much aplomb a little known poem which described in hilarious detail the vigourous efforts of Jonah to force the whale to "cast him up" upon the shore! Among other things, I remember, he hitched his braces to the whale's molars and proceeded to do gymnastics, using the monster's tongue as a trampoline! Looking back, I see this poem as a salutary antidote (intentional or not) to teaching, which treated the story of Jonah as straight history and allowed us to get bogged down in agonising doubt as to whether the Bible could be true, since the straits of Gibraltar appeared to render the presence of a whale in the Mediterranean a physical impossibility!
Much water has flowed under the bridge (or into the Mediterranean) since then. Literary form and the concept of scripture as "the Word of God in words of men" is now explained (hopefully) from the moment children are capable of grasping the different ways in which truth can be expressed; through poetic imagery, "true-to-life" fiction, etc. rather than only through bald statement of verifiable fact. "Is it true?" should mean so much more than simply "Did it redly happen in exactly that way?".
At its most human level the Book of Jonah presents a delightful piece of fiction at the centre of which is a thoroughly unpleasant anti-hero whose self-centredness, touchiness and narrow-mindedness can evoke rueful self-recognition, even in a child. I am so often that person who runs away from a distasteful task, who only admits he is in the wrong when forced to it by pressure of circumstances, who finally accepts a task at the second time of asking and under protest, performing it grudgingly, who hates being made to look a fool, who puts personal comfort before the well-being of others, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Jonah is our alter ego, a mirror-image of our less amiable self! His story can form the basis of a very concrete examination of conscience for any season of the year (like the poor, our personal Jonah is always with us), although the penitential seasons in both Jewish and Christian calendars are particularly suitable. Jonathan Magonet's at tide on "The Book of Jonah and the Day of Atonement" has some excellent things to say on this aspect of Jonah and would aid the formulation of a penitential rite in either home or school. Thomas Michel's contribution on the prophet Jonah in the Qur'an links the story of Jonah with broader themes of God's forgiveness and mercy which are relevant in this context of self-examination as a means to repentance.
The Book of Jonah, as Benoit Standaert points out in "Jesus and Jonah", is one of those stories which must have formed the mind of Jesus when he himself was a child, going to synagogue with his father and mother in the Galilean town of Nazareth. Small wonder that he later seemed to identify more with this Galilean prophet of the Northern Kingdom than with the more famous names connected with Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom. This article should be read very carefully by catechists and teachers, because of the dose links it demonstrates between the Book of Jonah and the teaching of Jesus. Some of the parables of Jesus have been emptied of meaning for children long before they are old enough to appreciate their real significance. 5-6 year olds dramatize the Prodigal Son in their innocence, and happy the ones who are helped to see it as a story about a father who lovingly waits for the naughty child who has stormed out of the house in a tantrum and spent the afternoon sulking at the bottom of the garden! Unhappy the teenagers (and I have seen them) who throw so much energy into acting out the good time had by all at the Prodigal's expense that they throw scarcely a glance in the direction of the Father waiting patiently while his son learns by hitter experience that true love (and therefore happiness) cannot be bought, but is pure gift. Too often the reaction to the parable is a bored "We know that one"! A new approach is suggested by Father Standaert when he points out the likeness to be found in the triangular relationship which is basic to both the parable and the Book of Jonah. Youngsters can be caught up in the drama of the situation and find themselves standing with the other questioners, called upon to make a decision with Jonah and the elder brother which could vitally affect their attitude towards other people.
The Resurrection of Jesus on the third day can be superficially equated with Jonah being cast up by the whale; children can certainly be encouraged to recognise the "sign of Jonah' in the Resurrection event, but as Benoit Standaert shows, there is so much more to it than just parallel illustrations!
Jonah does not give a sign, he is a sign. Jesus "is a sign by reason of the gift of his life even unto death". Studying the Book of Jonah alongside Mk. 4:35-41, Mt. 12:38-40, Mt. 16:21 can add a new dimension to catechesis in preparation for the Easter Triduum.
Jonah therefore is "everyone", the mirror-image of our sinful self and a powerful call to repentance. Jonah is the "elder brother" in each one of us, resisting the loving invitation of the father to rejoice at the return of his erring brother. Jonah is the prophet who helps us understand that a messenger can become his own message; because his message is written in his flesh, he is his message: "No sign shall be given . . . except the sign of the prophet Jonah" Mt. 12:39.