Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The abundance of God’s mercy even for our worst enemies

People around a table, photo by Luisa Brimble.
"via Unsplash," by Luisa Brimble; licensed under CC0.

September 24, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

The opening verse of this passage challenges two key beliefs among contemporary Christian readers: First, that God is unchanging; second, that the “God of the Hebrew Bible” (as if that were a different God) is cruel and vengeful. 

I love when the Bible challenges our beliefs because it is an opportunity to re-evaluate our theology of the Bible. These spots in the Bible facilitate conversations with our ancestors in faith, whose views on the Holy One do not always align with the standard beliefs that have developed during two thousand years of Christian history. Such re-evaluation is healthy for the life of faith. What do we make of this idea of God who changes God’s mind for the sake of mercy? 

Notably, God does not change God’s mind willy-nilly. The point here is to extend a second chance to those who have turned from “evil.” Hiding within plain sight in Jonah 4:2 is the central message of the story, a quote from Exodus 34:6. In that fundamental passage, Moses had created a replacement set of stone tablets, and took them to the Holy One on Sinai. While there, he had a powerful experience of the LORD’s presence. It culminates with the revelation of an ancient creed in which God’s steadfast love outweighs divine punishment about two-hundred-fifty to one, according to a conservative calculation of Exodus 34:6-7. 

Lest we think that this assertion of lovingkindness represents a minority view in the collection of books we call the Hebrew Bible, we see it repeated in numerous other places: Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 4:31; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17 and 31; Psalm 103:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:2-3; and 2 Esdras 7:132-136. These references jump out like a shining thread in the overall tapestry of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, illustrating the well-known and thematic nature of this ancient creed; speaking loudly about the compassionate nature of God.

Of course, God’s merciful nature—a praiseworthy trait in other passages—is exactly what makes Jonah angry enough that he wants to die. Jonah’s fury starkly contrasts the revelation of divine character in Exodus 34:6-7, which includes the phrase “slow to anger.” This resounds in God’s repeated question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4, 9)  

The passage poses yet a third challenge to contemporary Christian belief about God: That the Holy One is only and always serious. Here, among many other places in the book, we find sacred humor. Let this serve as a reminder to back up and read the whole book (it’s only four chapters!) just to notice what’s funny. For starters, the very name of the prophet suggests that this is comedy! The word Jonah can mean dove or pigeon, and in Hosea 7:11, this bird embodies a put-down meaning “silly” or “simple.” This prophet by the name of “Pigeon” behaves less like a prophet than anyone else in the history of prophecy. 

And this poor Pigeon cannot escape his God-given mission. The first time he tries to end his life to escape this task, his rescue takes the form of a huge fish (1:12, 17). One would think he could have ridden atop the fish to get to shore, but no, he gets swallowed by it! The most holy moment in the book is Jonah’s poetic prayer in chapter 2, which might seem more moving if he weren’t praying from inside a fish’s gut. His salvation culminates in a pile of vomit on the beach, at which point God sets him again to this abhorrent task. 

Once he reaches the huge city of Nineveh (it takes three days to walk across it, according to 3:2), he only once utters the message God has given him. With that attitude, it seems likely that he looks down and mumbles while speaking it! And yet all of Nineveh responds; even their livestock participate fully in the acts of repentance. Surely the idea of cows and sheep in sackcloth (3:8) elicits a giggle! Repeated talk of death (4:3, 8 [twice], 9) from someone who has recently been spared from just that fate also serves as hyperbolic humor. Finally, the book culminates with divine sarcasm in 4:11.

One part of the book that is not funny is the Assyrian Empire and their capital, Nineveh. Julia O’Brien’s and Thomas Bolin’s Bible Odyssey pieces on this city quickly demonstrate that this guy had every good reason to disobey God’s command to preach to them. The Assyrians were known for skinning their captives alive, impaling them on giant stakes, and marching them away tethered by nose-rings. In 722 BCE the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel; they went on to attack Jerusalem in 701. 

For better or worse, many contemporary Christians’ greatest familiarity with this story arises from the 2002 film “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” (Big Idea Productions). While the film rightly depicts the story as humorous, it misses “the point,” despite the refrain of the “big musical production” at the end of the movie, which repeats “he did not get the point.” According to the film, the point of Jonah is about “compassion and mercy from me to you and you to me.” Yet divine compassion and mercy comprise the central focus of this little Bible story. Certainly, compassion and mercy among humans is an important message. But what really troubled the Pigeon Prophet was God’s compassion and mercy. Yes, it was good for Jonah, in that he died neither in the sea nor in the fish. But he was so angry about God’s compassion to a horrific enemy that he ultimately scorned that divine trait even for himself, ultimately claiming to prefer death. 

One challenge of this story is to relate to Jonah in realizing the abundance of God’s mercy even for our worst enemies. In taking this to heart we must think carefully about who those enemies truly are. The text challenges us to take evil seriously and grapple with a theology that allows for repentance and embrace by the “wideness of God’s mercy,” to quote a hymn. Perhaps a little humor helps us to endure those weighty theological ideas. 

About a century after the Assyrians terrorized the ancient Israelites, there arose a new enemy: Babylon. They exiled Jerusalem’s leaders in Babylon for about fifty years of captivity, until the Persian Empire let them return home. When that happened, the community engaged in heated debate about who belonged to the community and who did not. What about the “foreign wives” whom Israelites had married in Babylon? Weren’t they dangerous, based on certain other (in)famous foreign wives (1 Kings 21:25)? There was a movement—we could think of it as a political party—just after the exile that advocated sending away these foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10). Perhaps this story about a Pigeon Prophet and God’s exceeding mercy was from a political party opposed to Ezra’s view that God would exclude foreign wives and children. We can find echoes of that radically welcoming view elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: the book of Ruth offers glowing rhetoric about a foreign wife; a passage late in Isaiah suggests a welcome for those who want to be part of the community (56:6-8).

Jonah teaches us that it is God’s prerogative to offer mercy everywhere, all the time, to everyone, even if we think it is unjust, inappropriate, or not for “those people.” This feature of the divine nature may simultaneously astonish and repulse us, depending on who will be its recipient. We tend to reject this mercy for our enemies but desire it for ourselves. That hypocrisy of human nature warrants plenty of self-deprecating, Jonah-esque humor!

Vista at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Sermon Brainwave at Ghost Ranch

A preachers’ retreat with Working Preachers Karoline Lewis, Joy J. Moore, and Matt Skinner.

Hosted by Ghost Ranch in New Mexico July 29-August 2, 2024, this conference is for preachers who want to learn, workshop, discuss, renew, and worship together.