Jonah – the abounding, annoying mercy of God. (Week Five)
This week we read from Jonah 3:10 to the end of the book
"God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behaviour. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city… (Jonah 3:10-4:5)
The abounding, annoying mercy of God has irritated religious people ever since we realised that God is love. Jesus knew this very well, and crystallised it in his story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16):
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion (a silver coin of the time), he sent them into his vineyard.
“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
Nothing annoys us more than to feel that our own additional work and righteousness counts for nothing. But that is precisely the message of God's undeserved grace. Like the workers in Jesus' story, Jonah is "resentful because [God is] generous". Indeed he is so angry that he doesn't want to live at all, in a world where mercy abounds.
As Christian disciples we need to understand this feeling if we are to resist it. In most Hollywood movies the real villains get their just desserts, and we feel good as we watch (for example) the wicked Emperor in Star Wars falling into the abyss. It's this sort of righteous vengeance that Jonah was hoping for when he preached repentance to Nineveh, but (as he says) at the back of his mind he doesn't really expect it, because at the back of his mind he knows that God is merciful. Dash it!
Self-righteousness eats away at Jonah and leads him even to consider death. And so God, who loves Jonah and is merciful to him too, causes a shady tree to grow over him in the heat - and then causes the tree to fall. This, of course, makes Jonah yet more furious, and you can imagine him uttering the playground cry "It isn't fair!"
But the loving and merciful God is implacable here - God's mercy and God's pity will prevail, no matter how grumpy Jonah becomes. And if the book of Jonah were a movie itself, here is where we leave Jonah - absorbing this lesson, as the great city Nineveh comes to God and as the rejoicing of the saved fills the soundtrack and the credits roll: "Writer and Director - the God of mercy and grace".
And perhaps we would leave the cinema thinking about the impact of the story on our own lives. Because as Denis McBride says in his book (p139): "The ending of the book of Jonah is postponed…it ends in the middle of things… The principal players, God and Jonah, are still at odds; the drama is unfinished. It waits to be completed beyond the confines of the Old Testament chronicle".
It waits to be completed in your own life. How will you respond when once again you see ignorance and evil in the world? Will you, like Jonah, look to God for vengeance and retribution? Or will you accept the truth of God as the endlessly gracious One whose justice is gentle, and who longs to bless and forgive all?
God's justice is indeed gentle, but God is holy. God seeks holiness, but in seeking it God does not impose misery on the heavy-laden. Nineveh needs to repent, and it does indeed repent when Jonah preaches, because God is not content simply to leave its people in their wickedness. But when the people of the city hear the message, they realise that to turn to God is to be accepted; to hear God knocking and to open the door is to sit at the table with the risen Christ and to be saved (Revelation 3:20).
People who believe that God is like this can transform the world with the light of rejoicing. In your church or small group, why not find two or three other disciples and discuss this story with them, so that each of you can be encouraged to rejoice when you see mercy in action, and lighten the world with your joy?
When I became a Christian I heard that message and I opened that door to Jesus, just as you did. And now as disciples, together we follow a Rule of Life - called to pray, read and learn; sent to tell, serve and give. We do all this so that we may remember and live out the abounding, annoying mercy of God. So that we may learn each day to rejoice that God loves everyone, every single one, and reaches out to them without limit, patiently and gently, with an eternal hope and an eternal care.
"It isn't fair" - but it is beautiful, and we are called to celebrate it and to rejoice daily at the self-giving love of the beautiful God of love, crucified for us and for everyone. Jonah’s story is indeed unfinished, but I hope that he, too, came to see that God’s love is a miracle calling for gladness, not anger.
May God bless you as you finish the unfinished book of Jonah in your own life, and brighten the world which needs mercy so much. Be sure of my prayers for you as you do so. And please pray for me, and for all the disciples in our Diocese, that in Christ we as a people may be merciful, and may brighten the world each day.
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Jonah Summer Reading Challenge
Join Bishop Paul in this year’s Summer Challenge reading the book of Jonah. Sign up to this course and you will receive weekly emails encouraging you to read sections of Jonah alongside the companion book - Journeying with Jonah: the struggle to find yourself’ by the Roman Catholic scholar Denis McBride. Find out more about the challenge and how you can get involved.Course 12 PartsTotal current bookmarks 21