Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

A difficult mercy

Sea of Galilee at sunset
Photo by Dave Herring on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 24, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Jonah is a tale of what happens when God’s mercy is too much for some, and maybe not enough for others.

In reading this story, we are supposed to know several things. The first thing we should know is that Nineveh will eventually become the capital of the Assyrian Empire (but not until 17 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell). The book of Jonah does not attempt to describe what Nineveh has done to have their wickedness come before God. The reader is supposed to already know. Thus, Nineveh should be understood as representing the wicked, bloodthirsty power of empire that would bring a particularly savage and cruel end to the Kingdom of Israel.

We are also meant to know that Jonah is a particular kind of prophet. Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied that even though sinful patterns of abuse, injustice, and idolatry continued unabated, the Northern Kingdom of Israel would become great again by recovering land and prestige that had been lost under previous kings (2 Kings 14:23-27). In other words, Jonah’s prophetic career, outside of the book that bears his name, is based entirely upon prophesying national greatness for an unrepentant country. As a prophet, Jonah was an unconditional Israelite nationalist.

And so it was Jonah, in God’s own sense of humor, who was picked to prophesy against Nineveh. Now, we would think that Jonah would love to say to citizens of any nation other than his own, “forty more days and you will be destroyed.” But he was more than a bit reluctant, as chapters one and two describe. Why? Because Jonah knows God’s character: “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” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah knew in advance that God would be much too merciful to Nineveh for Jonah’s tastes. Jonah only spent one day preaching to a city meant to take three days to cover, because Jonah knew of God’s great mercy (Jonah 3:3-4). That God loves and is merciful to Gentiles is not meant to be a surprise to the reader. It was certainly not a surprise to Jonah.

What was a surprise to some of the earliest readers of this book was how God had not been merciful to the Israelites. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was obliterated by the Assyrians, who stood out in a brutal period of history as especially wantonly violent. The Assyrians also waged war against the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But it was ultimately the Babylonians who triumphed over the Judahites over a century later. Nineveh had been destroyed by the Babylonians as their empire grew, but the city of Babylon was largely spared by the attacking Persians because they did not resist their own conquest. Judahite refugees returning to their destroyed cities must have wondered why God’s mercy was enough to save Babylon, but not Samaria or Jerusalem. After all, the prophets had been prophesying against Babylon for centuries, but it still stood, largely unscathed. God’s mercy had been plentiful for their oppressors, and not enough for them. The book of Jonah is an attempt to respond to the latter of those age-old, twin questions: why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people?

It is in chapter three of Jonah that we have an attempted response to the challenge of why a city that was partly responsible for so much suffering was forgiven. In response to Jonah’s lackluster prophesying, the people of Nineveh responded with alacrity. The people, from the least to the greatest proclaimed a fast and everyone put on uncomfortable sackcloth. The verses that we do not read in the lectionary include the details that the king of Nineveh, upon hearing Jonah’s message, unnecessarily called a fast that his people were already observing. But then the fast was extended to animals, who were also dressed up in sackcloth as well. If you find the image of sheep and cows wearing sackcloth diapers funny—good! This is supposed to be a comical overdoing of repentance. The king of Nineveh imagined that if the fast were extreme enough, God may relent from divine anger. And that is exactly what God did.

The message for Israelites and Judahites who may have read this text was clear. National prestige and closeness to God will not be enough to save a people from the consequences of ongoing injustice and idolatry. Jonah was chosen for this adventure specifically to repudiate his prior prophetic career. Relying on God to preserve national greatness despite national patterns of sinfulness and abuse is so utterly stupid that even the Ninevites know not to try it! Instead, the Ninevites repented in sackcloth and ashes, and God was merciful to them.

The closing verse of our reading for this week is a word of hope, if we have ears to hear it. When God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways, God also turned from the evil that God had planned. Even to those Assyrians who were primarily known throughout history for their abject cruelty and wanton violence, God sends messengers telling of consequences and inviting them to a better way. The book of Jonah proclaims that even a warlike people, such as the Assyrians, were able to repent. If bloodthirsty folks whose society is built on violence are able to passionately repent and move God’s heart, how much more should God’s beloved community, the people of God’s pasture, avail themselves of God’s abundant mercy by turning from evil ways that hurt and harm others?