The First Reading poses a puzzle that has bedeviled philosophers and theologians.
God tells Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh this line from the Lord: Forty days more and Ninevah shall be destroyed.
God is announcing his own intention here, and God does not lie. Furthermore, the people of Nineveh believe this line to be true. That is why they fast and repent. And God is pleased with them for doing so.
BUT here is the problem: the line seems to be false. At any rate, forty days after Jonah’s announcement, the city is still standing.
And so here is the puzzle: could God say a lie and approve people for believing a line that is false?
Philosophers and theologians have had a lot to say about this puzzle. But here is a simple thought.
When God intervenes dramatically in your life, he puts your whole life immediately at a major cross-road. You can either ignore him and continue stubbornly with your old life, as if God didn’t really matter, or didn’t really care what you did, or maybe didn’t really exist at all. Or you can open yourself to God. You can respond to him with trust and a willingness to obey. But if you do this, you will be leaving your old life aside, for a new life that might well have been unimaginable to you beforehand. You won’t be who you were before. You will be a new person, in him and for him.
The people of Nineveh respond to God’s call in this second way. When they hear God’s voice through Jonah and repent, their whole lives change. Because they repent, they become very different people from the people they had been. And so the whole city becomes a very different city from the one it had been.
There are, then, two ways in which the Lord’s line can be true. Ninevah can be destroyed either because God destroys the city or because the people cease to be the Ninevah that they were. Either way, the old Ninevah will no longer exist.
And so God’s line is never false. The people of Ninevah make it true in the best way by believing it to be true. When they respond with repentance, with trust and obedience, they cease to be what they were. And then, in that best way, Ninevah is destroyed.