Any Gregory Peck fans? Some people know that Gregory Peck played Captain Ahab in a 1956 movie version of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A few people maybe know that Gregory Peck made a cameo appearance in the 1998 tv-miniseries version. Which character did he portray then? Father Mapple. Who gave a stirring sermon on…? The prophet Jonah! Here’s a summary.
Jonah began by disobeying God’s direct order. Go to Nineveh. Go east. Jonah sailed west. Jonah hated the Ninevites. He did not want the Ninevites to repent and find salvation. He wanted them to burn.
So Jonah disobeyed, simply because he did not want to fulfill the Lord’s command.
As Father Mapple, Gregory Peck puts it eloquently, “To obey God, we must disobey ourselves; it is in this disobeying of ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”
The Lord turned the tables on Jonah. The fugitive has to jump overboard to keep the ship on which he sails from sinking in a storm. Then a whale swallows Jonah.
From the belly of the whale, Jonah finally prays. He begins by acknowledging that God has justly punished him. Lord, this is miserable, languishing in the belly of a whale. But I deserve it.
This, Father Mapple points out, is repentance of the deepest and most faithful kind. I have sinned, Lord, and You have justly punished. Praise you! Jonah loves God enough to praise Him for making life miserable for him.
Father Mapple then goes on to emphasize how the Lord liberated the penitent Jonah and Jonah embraced his duty. Jonah went to seek the repentance of the Ninevites by telling them the unpleasant truth. As Father Mapple has it: Truth rather than pleasure. Truth rather than comfort. Truth rather than honor in this world.
Then, as we read at Holy Mass today, the Ninevites repented with stunning thoroughness. They repented instantly and completely. Jonah preached, and the people—from low to high—listened and renounced their wicked ways.
How can we explain such an amazing conversion of the entire city?
I think Father Mapple’s point about the profound sincerity of Jonah’s faith—his own humility in acknowledging the justice of God’s punishments—this is the explanation. The Ninevites saw in Jonah a precursor of St. Paul: a man who came not with charisma, not with wisdom, not with eloquence, but with the absolute conviction that God is true to His word. And that our job is to disobey ourselves so we can obey Him.