In addition to Friday, Wedensday was historically a day for fasting in the Church. And so, it is not surprising that today's first reading is Jonah's entrance into Nineveh and the call for repentance and fasting. It is easy for us to overlook the important details at the center of this story.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Sometimes we fail to understand the significance of these details because we think of the "world of the Bible" as if it were a different world than the one we inhabit. It was not. Human nature has not changed greatly over the centuries, and the quest to have and keep power was as real as ever. If anything it was even more necessary then for a king to never show weakness. And yet the king of Nineveh did.
Firstly, he demonstrated a willingness to listen. He could have easily dismissed Jonah. He could have denounced his message. After all, Jonah was telling the people of Nineveh that they were on the wrong path. He could have had him executed for stirring up the people. Instead he was willing to listen to the criticism. The king not only listened but accepted personal responsibly. He did not try and blame others (as Adam attempted to blame Eve).
Secondly, he committed to changing directions. His actions of rising from his throne and laying aside his cloak demonstrated his acknowledgment that being a king did not make him incapable or error or sin. His covering himself in sackcloth and ashes was a very public manifestation of contrition and desire for conversion.
As a king he had to have understood how some might see this as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to attack, to seize power. A king sitting in sackcloth and ashes was an unimaginable sight. How would it look to the people? Some had to think it was undignified. And yet this king did it. He was able to do it because he possessed the virtue of humility.
This story puts before us some very basic questions. Do we really believe in being humble –outside of Church? And do we want leaders who publicly manifest humility?