Indeed, the historical Nineveh, the capital of the bloodthirsty Assyrian empire, starting with the Sennacherib kingdom at the end of the 8th century, was a vast city: its walls had a perimeter of seven and a half miles. Even so, it seems exaggerated that it took three days to explore it.
The fact is that the book of Jonah, a fragment we heard in the first reading – Jonah is the well-known character swallowed by the whale – is a fictional story, a didactic fable, composed many years after the supposed events. It was recounted in the second or third century BC when Nineveh was already a memory, a pile of rubble almost covered by sand. In fact, in the year 612 BC, Nineveh, with its regime of terror, had fallen to the assault of the Medes and Babylonians who plundered and devastated it.
However, for the Hebrew people, Nineveh, almost like Babylon, was synonymous with the impious city, enemy of God, and oppressor of the people of Israel. It was a symbol of the perversity of men.
And from there comes the strength of the teaching of the story of Jonah: even those men, unimaginably evil, in the face of Jonah’s preaching, in the face of the word of God, are capable of conversion. And, in the story, it is tacit that, on the contrary, the people of Israel, familiar with that word and perhaps precisely for this reason, too accustomed to it, become deaf to God’s message.
When we hear the word conversion, the stories of the great converts of history immediately come to mind: Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. However, if we listen carefully to the gospel, the call to conversion – in which Mark summarizes the core of Christ’s preaching today – does not have to do only with great sinners but with all his listeners.
Therefore, speaking of ‘conversion to the gospel’ must mean something more than simply going from a disorganized and immoral life to a measured and honest one.
In fact, the original Greek word behind our term ‘conversion’ is the verb ‘metanoeo,’ which literally means ‘to change one’s mind,’ or, in other words, ‘to change one’s point of view,’ ‘to replace goals and purposes.’ It has more to do with the interior, the way of looking, judging, and seeing, than with the exterior and even with acting.
We must believe in the gospel, look at things through the eyes of Jesus, adopt God’s scale of values in our judgments and reasoning, become familiar with the life of the saints, and bathe our brains in the fresh, clean water of Jesus. While we continue doing the same things as always, living the same legitimate joys or facing the same problems. Still, our lives will change if we do it from Jesus and for Jesus.
We may be good people, but we might be missing the genuine desire to become a saint, to live life only for Jesus. Let us continue doing everything we do and avoiding what we should avoid, but all done for the love of Jesus. Doesn’t it change things to do them for the love of our families or children? Won’t doing everything we do for the love of Jesus transform our lives? Wouldn’t it be different, not simply to be good, but to clearly set our goal on holiness, on the urgency of the kingdom that is coming, on the desire to give ourselves totally to God, to follow him, to be his disciple, to go deeper and deeper into his friendship?