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  • Writer's pictureElpidio Pezzella

Going Away from the Presence of the Lord

"But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord."

(Jonah 1:3 NKJV)

Jonah was commanded to get up and go to Nineveh, the great city, capital of the mighty kingdom of Assyria, Israel’s enemy and invader. The Assyrians had conquered and destroyed Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, in 722 BC. Their invasion policy and domination were known. This is why Nineveh was the symbol of the oppressor, the enemy par excellence; it is not just a pagan city, but a place of power that is opposed to God. Nineveh was located on the banks of the Tigris River, in Mesopotamia, and more precisely near today's Mosul, in northern Iraq. The prophet does get up at the word of the Lord, but disregards it with a flight in the totally opposite direction. Nineveh was located east of Jerusalem, while he fled west, towards Tarshish, according to some located in the south of Spain, at that time identified as the edge of the world. It is argued that it could have been Tarsus of Cilicia (in present-day southern Turkey), the city that will give birth to the apostle Paul, where perhaps he had friends and relatives who could host him. In 1773, however, the discovery in a town near Cagliari of an engraving bearing the name of "Tarsis" confirmed that it was a port on the Mediterranean coast, and almost certainly in Sardinia. The prophet is too conditioned by resentment towards the Ninevites and, once raised, he opts in the opposite direction. The text tells us that he does not go far from Nineveh, but from the presence of the Eternal. So it is for us, whenever we disagree with Scripture, when we shirk our moral and spiritual commitment. Responding to divine command is our sacrosanct responsibility. Instead we seek our justifications, and for them we could understand the attitude of the son of Amittai, also willing to make an economic effort so as not to change his ideas, animated by resentment towards an invading people, the object of God's merciful attention. Every day there are those who, like Jonah, turn their backs on their "neighbor" (whoever he is) and move away from his responsibilities, choosing the sea and a ship as an escape route, as a reaction to an action suffered, a retreat that amplifies your pain by silencing everything else. There is not always a triggering pain, often one can be a victim of one's own paranoia. But it is necessary to reckon with God, and his unacceptable mercy, which does not let go, does not grant truce to those who balk or try to put their conscience to sleep. We may be convinced that we are far away when He is closer than we imagine. The Assyrian capital is like the giant Goliath to be faced and which scares anyone. Fear is a silent companion when we flee and refuse to be who we are. The prophet is upset, he feels the burden of a mission that he does not share and tries to escape from responsibilities, but he will soon discover that we cannot escape from God, especially when He does not accept that he remains indifferent to the need that surrounds us. The ship has taken off, Jonah is asleep, hoping that nothing will awaken him. But the wind and the storm loom over the fugitive's journey. The verb "unleash" contains the idea of the strength deployed by the Lord, which leads to "a great storm". The wind should have been enough to lead the prophet back in his footsteps. The story of Elijah fleeing on the mountain was to suggest to him what that strong wind was (1King 19:11). The context of the ship in a storm is proof of this, even offering us the paradox of sailors trying to save the life of the apathetic Jonah. The prophet had escaped, silencing first his vocation, then his faith. The "frightened" sailors, on the other hand, pray, clinging to the lifeboat of faith. The disciples on the lake were reprimanded by the Master who addressed their fear as a lack of faith. Dear friend, if you were planning an escape to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Eternal, I hope this consideration was enough to make you change your mind and return to your decision. Perhaps it is time to open our eyes and realize who is at our side, who is the One who has called us to serve him. “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea” (Psalm 139:7-9). Just run! It is time to go to the Nineveh that is waiting for us.


Weekly Bible Reading

Plan # 29

July 11, Psalms 1-3; Acts 17:1-15

July 12, Psalms 4-6; Acts 17:16-34

July 13, Psalms 7-9; Acts 18

July 14, Psalms 10-12; Acts 19:1-20

July 15, Psalms 13-15; Acts 19:21-41

July 16, Psalms 16-17; Acts 20:1-16

July 17, Psalms 18-19; Acts 20:17-38

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