Few people today misunderstand the nature of this story. The two questions often raised about it in the past are no longer heard: Did Jonah really exist? Did he really stay in the belly of a fish for three days?
The book of Jonah is a story, but the author deserves to be considered a prophet because he very clearly underscored some truths which his contemporaries had forgotten.
This delightful narrative criticizes, not the idolatrous or godless people, but the pious Jews themselves who, locked in their nationalism, easily forget that God is the God of all peoples.
God, the savior of all people
Jonah does not like pagans and if God saves them, Jonah does not feel like paying the price for it. This kind of pettiness, characteristic of an average believer, merely covers up another, much greater scandal for which God is responsible. How are we to understand that God saves everyone if, at the same time, he repeats throughout the bible that Israel alone was chosen, that it alone has the word of life, it alone has a Savior, that all that God demands (circumcision, or later, baptism, or the Eucharist, or sexual prohibitions) is absolutely necessary in order to be saved?
This scandal has always been at the heart of Christianity just as it was with the Jews. Does God speak two languages? Or should we believe that Christian salvation is only one among all those that are offered to peoples from different cultures and religions? This question was so formidable that Christians often tried to dismiss it without even naming it. Thus, following Saint Augustine, the Western Church locked itself in the doctrine of original sin as if in a fortress (see the commentaries on Gen 3 and Rom 5:12). We used to assert without batting an eye that after Mr. Adam’s sin, all people were condemned to hell, except for those who were baptized, or at least desired baptism. We have said and preached that until the middle of the twentieth century. This is the reason why still-born babies were not buried on Christian ground. It is also the reason why many missionaries would have given their lives just to baptize a single pagan child.
Saint Augustine kindly contended that hell would be considerably softened for unbaptized children. At the same time, he felt bound to show that all the “virtues of pagans,” all the good we see in them, was totally worthless before God: these virtues were a way of seeking their own perfection without God and therefore, were the product of pride. This denunciation by Augustine of many people (Christians or not) who act and live beyond reproach in the eyes of others or in their own, was certainly insightful; but he would not have gone to such extremes if it had not been necessary to exorcise the famous question: does not God save non-Christians just as he saves us? This would definitely have dampened the enthusiasm of Christians.
To those asking about the will of God that all people be saved the answer was: “God wants to save all human beings provided they believe and become Roman Catholic.” This wall officially began to crack only in the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout the three previous centuries, this concealed violence of the Christian doctrine (a condemnation without appeal of all religions and most of humanity that did not embrace Christianity) scandalized countless open-minded people, opening a path to Western atheism, yet the Church (we should say: the churches) did not budge. Therefore, we should not be surprised if as soon as God’s will to save everyone was acknowledged most Christians began to question their faith. They were not denying it and even conceded that it may have been the best, but thought that all religions were equally valid. Some went farther and thought that everything was optional in this matter and we all save ourselves as best as we can.
So, now we must rethink our Christian identity: what are we in the midst of humanity? What are we saying when we profess that we are only saved by Christ? What does this salvation brought by Christ have to do with the rest of humanity?
No wonder that today countless Christians are perplexed about the subject. They should not be condemned instantly if they feel such a need to be in solidarity with the rest of humanity that they sell off the treasures God entrusted to them: they did not see that the call they received to be the people of Christ entrusts them a unique mission which is necessary for the salvation of the world. It is impossible to overcome such a drastic change in a few years, or even in a hundred years, and perhaps for a long time to come we will be incapable of understanding how God loves and saves everyone and at the same time how the call to the faith that we have received is an exceptional grace.
At least let us recall what the whole Bible tells us, namely, that God is “predilection and fidelity.” It is by the path of fidelity, rather than by the path of reasoning or feelings, that we will enter into this God who is truth.