Word for the Week
Short reflections on Bible passages, with a frontline focus...
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, ‘Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
But the LORD replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’
It’s worked! Jonah has got to Nineveh, preached God’s message to its people, and they have turned from their sinful ways. They repented and God relented. And so, the story is back on track: we have our happy ending, and Jonah rejoices alongside the Ninevites.
Or so we’d expect.
But no. Jonah reacts by… becoming angry? The indignant cries of the self-righteous prophet have us wincing. Maybe that’s because Jonah, having just received forgiveness for his own rebellion, now lambasts God for extending this same forgiveness to the Ninevites. Or, maybe, it’s because we see ourselves in Jonah’s reaction.
Jonah knows that this is the Lord’s character. He quotes Exodus 34, where God reveals himself as ‘gracious and compassionate… slow to anger and abounding in love’. The Lord extends his grace to whomever he wants.
But, if we’re honest, don’t we sometimes wish he was a little more selective? Don’t we think that some things should be unforgivable, no matter how much repentance occurs? Sometimes it’s small issues – the bully making our child’s life miserable, or the boss refusing to pass on credit – but often it’s more vicious things: serial killers, sexual abusers, human traffickers. How can God forgive them?
We may find ourselves joining with Jonah, and with the Pharisees, who witness the sinful woman at the feet of Jesus and recoil in judgement: ‘don’t you know what she’s done?!’
Of course Jesus knew what she’d done. Of course God knew what the Ninevites had done. And of course he knows what the perpetrators of terrible crimes have done.
He also knows what we have done. And yet, his love is relentless and his mercy sufficient. How can we accept this for ourselves but object when it’s given to others?
God replies to Jonah’s anger with a simple question: ‘is it right for you to be angry?’ He exposes the contradiction in Jonah’s position. The justice of God often doesn’t look how we expect, and sometimes not even how we want, but it is perfect. While our sanctimonious hearts call for judgement, the Father smiles and opens his arms to the repentant.
The people of Nineveh did have ‘evil ways’. As the capital of the Assyrian Empire, this city was the poster-boy for sin. And yet, God uses this city to teach us the same lesson he taught Jonah: that his loving-kindness is able to reach even the most broken and sinful.