How Dare God be Merciful – Lectionary 09/20/2020

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Now When God saw what they did, how they [Nineveh] turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Sermon Text

            There concepts of justice and mercy are two things that we cannot, while on Earth, fully comprehend. Our definitions for them are dependent on understandings we discovered while inhabiting our broken world. Except through Divine Revelation we cannot truly learn what either word means, and oftentimes God’s revelation still seems unimaginable to us. The ultimate act of mercy in God’s work with us was the crucifixion of Jesus. The death of God’s truly innocent and righteous Son is the foundational image of God’s mercy, and that image could only exist in the most unjust of deaths we could ever imagine. God on the cross suffering for us, God in the grave having died for us, the source of all life cast out beyond life itself.

            Our inability to conceive of what either Justice or Mercy could look like requires that we create images of them, either through stories or art, to try and address even the simplest element of either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian writing in and against Nazi Germany, believed that we who ae, as he put it, “in the Middle,” cannot conceive truly of what was in the beginning of creation – when justice and mercy were all that there was – and so must use almost fanciful logic to even begin to understand what a life without evil would look like.[1] We create stories, parables, and fables to chase after the realities that are too alien for us to even begin to imagine.

            The particular realities of Justice – God’s ability to bring about right conclusions to situations – and Mercy – God’s gift of grace given to all people – are beyond our ability to ever truly conceive of. We as a people see Justice as an act of revenge, and so we cast God as a vengeful force punishing our enemies. We as a people see Mercy as erasure of consequences, and so we see God as our ultimate get out of jail free card to excuse all our wrongdoing.

            Yet, these definitions are not sufficient – they do not jive with the world we inhabit. If Justice from God were truly a matter of vengeance, then God would be nothing but a ball of fire and judgment, because everyone at some time will have done wrong against God. A vengeful God would indeed destroy the world constantly. Likewise, a God whose mercy was founded on erasing consequences and mitigating responsibility could not ask anything of anyone. Certainly, such a God would not be able to tell us, “take up your cross,” such a God could not call us to repentance. If Mercy means that we can do what we wish then it is a cheap sort of grace.

            The paradox of divine judgment is so complex that we must tell parables that place the two in contrast. Jesus frequently describes God’s stern Justice as coming as a consequence of an individual or community’s lack of mercy. Paul places the paradox in terms of a potter making one vessel for destruction and another for glorification. Theologians throughout history have reconciled the two, making one a complement to the other, but always from the same perspective of, “the middle,” always unsure what exactly God’s view of the thing might be.

            As a lover of mystery novels and film, I myself see a beautiful example of this contrast in the BBC production of Murder on the Orient Express starring David Suchet. The Belgian detective, Hercule Poiort, in this version struggles with whether Justice is simply following all rules and facing all consequences. He uncovers a revenge plot, he exposes those responsible for the killing, and in this version delivers and impassioned speech that describes justice as the ultimate principle of human life, unshakeable and divinely given. The novel ends with him offering two options for how to prosecute the case, one Merciful and the other the textbook definition of Justice. In this film version, Poirot chooses one of the two, and the choice leaves him clutching his rosary and weeping – unsure if he has just sinned or done what was right.

            The story of Jonah is also a parable of Justice and Mercy. Though Jonah was a real prophet who worked in the early parts of the eighth century BCE, the book of Jonah is almost universally viewed as a piece of historic fiction. Whatever events in the book did happen have been retroactively adjusted to create a play the criticizes the readers expectations of the story. It is not a strict retelling of events like we might see in a biography of a person, but a literary interpretation of their life. To understand by analogy, it is less like a 1:1 biography of Alexander Hamilton but more like the musical, “Hamilton,” which adjusts some historical bits and bobs to create a cohesive narrative and message.

            Jonah begins with God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh and bring them to repentance. Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, although not during the years Jonah was active. By the end of the eighth century, Assyria would move out from this city and destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Nineveh was a shorthand way of saying, “The worst place imaginable,” and two scholars. André and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, building off of Jewish experiences in the Holocaust, tie Nineveh to Nazi Berlin by saying, “To go to Nineveh is not very different from going to Hell.”[2]

            Jonah fled from God’s call because Jonah did not want to see these people saved. To go to the worst place imaginable and to save the people who were destined to destroy you – it did not make sense. If Jonah fled, if Nineveh was not told that they were on borrowed time, then maybe God would just destroy the city anyway. Justice, or at least Justice as Jonah imagined it, would be served, and nothing more about the matter would have to be said. Jonah was willing to defy God rather than allow for God’s mercy to manifest itself and save Jonah’s enemies.

            Jonah did so because, to him, God’s mercy was despicable, “How dare God be merciful!,” Was his essential cry, “God, you know what is coming down the line and you are letting them seek forgiveness? Forty days from now they could have been gone and we would not have had to worry about them! Why could you not have just wiped them out and made our lives easier? Why oh why did you have to be merciful?”

            Nineveh repents, Jonah sulks. Jonah wishes to die, first because God showed Mercy to Jonah’s enemies, and secondly because the tree that had given him shelter had died. God chastises Jonah and reminds him that the life of over one hundred thousand people is more important than his single tree and his pet comforts. God is clear, Mercy cannot be bound up based on the condition of what may happen in the future, Mercy does not belong to one people or country or place, Mercy is a form of Justice we can never truly understand except to give it freely as God has given it.

            Still, the story ends without resolution. Jonah does not repent and we are left with a deadlock between God and the prophet. The narrative leaves us open to decide for ourselves – who side will we take? Do we, like Jonah, want to see bloodshed and hellfire given to our enemies, real or perceived? Or do we like God want to extend a chance to change, and to work toward reconciling even the most dreaded of situations? Do we like Jonah value our comfort over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, or are we willing to wear a mask in public and make sacrifices when it comes to leaving our house? That last one may seem sneaky, but mercy is not always in response to crime. Mercy is love enough to suffer a little indecency for the good of all people.

            Mercy is the marrow that supports all life, we live only through Mercy, and we are sustained through a Just God who gives that mercy freely. Are we willing to do the same, not only in forgiving those we have written off as enemies, but in serving those who greatly need our care? Cast yourself upon the Love of God, repent as Nineveh did long ago, and show Jonah up in your ability to do Justly and Love Mercy. – Amen.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Trans. Douglas Stephen Bax. “The Center of the Earth.” In Creation & Fall (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press. 1997) Locations 822-844

[2] Andre Lacocque & Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque. “A City’s Fate.” In Freedom Beyond Forgiveness. (New York, New York : Bloomsbury 1997) 133

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