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Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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What a nice story…crisis averted, right? There’s more to it. The very next verse, in chapter four, tells us that Jonah was angry with god for having spared Nineveh. He complains, “God, this is exactly why I ran away when you first told me to go to Nineveh. I knew you are gracious and compassionate and merciful and full of love and would end up acquitting this deplorable city the minute they pled guilty.
It’s not often that we hear people complaining about God’s love and mercy, though I’m not too surprised, to be honest. After all, how many of us have wondered this parallel question to 'why do bad things happen to good people,': "Why do good things happen to bad people" or "why do the bad guys get away with it?".
And Nineveh was right up there with the bad guys, at least according to the Bible. Speaking for God, the prophet Nahum warns Nineveh, “Woe to the city guilty of bloodshed![a] She is full of lies;[b] she is filled with plunder;[c] she has hoarded her spoil![d]" Violence, disregard for truth, greed, thievery, deceit, sounds pretty bad. God basically says to Jonah, “go be kind to all the wrong people!”
What happens when God’s widest mercy butts up against our human notions of justice? Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman speaks to this tension when she recites how “the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice”. If God’s will is mercy, how are we to be expected to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven if it means the bad guys get off scott free?
When God’s judgement awakens the Ninevens to their wrongdoing, to the seriousness of their wrongdoing, or perhaps less charitably, when the citizens of nineveh realize that their actions are actually going to have consequences, they repent. And not just repent, but perform penance. They fast, and put on sackcloth, a particularly public act of penance. I can imagine Jonah thinking, “oh please, they have access to the law, they know the ten commandments, they could’ve followed them this whole time, but they didnt, nor did they speak out against their neighbors when they broke God’s law. How are we supposed to believe that they’re being sincere right now? what if they’re saying they’re sorry, just performing repentance to avoid the consequences? Where’s the accountability? Where’s the justice?
God’s mercy can feel anticlimactic. It can feel brutal. It can feel like an insult to those of us who feel like we don’t need mercy because we’ve never done anything that bad…It can feel like an abandonment, tending to the wolf amongst the sheep. But God’s justice isn’t human justice. Ours is an approximation, the best we can do with all our human ways and foibles. Our norms and notions of what just is isn’t always Justice, Gorman says. We call our system of law enforcement, judgement, and punishment the “justice” system, but it’s often justice in name only, preoccupied more with just desserts than just peace. And, we’re only human. We’ve yet to figure out as a society how to effectively keep one another safe in the face of all of our sins, without dehumanizing one another in the process. This is nothing new and isn’t anything that will get sorted out in a sermon. As we humans figure out what it means to hold ourselves and one another accountable in ways that are just, we rely on God’s mercy, even as we resent it. God’s mercy that spares even the most deplorable city, offering an infuriatingly patient and eternal grace that makes us want to tear our hair out, or better yet, spend the rest of our days inside a whale.
Yesterday Pope Francis offered this reminder: “After the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for His own, “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). This means that we are not able to achieve unity with our own strength. Above all, unity is a gift, it is a grace to be requested through prayer”
Just like unity, we are not able to enact God’s kind of mercy with our own strength - we need God’s help. As humans we often can be too preoccupied with the optics of just desserts, of the bad guys getting as much as they gave and being publicly called out and shamed, to be able to fully embrace and mete out God’s kind of brutally wide mercy when faced with a soul in seeming repentance. We too often are seduced by ‘calling out’ that we miss God showing us how to “call in”.
Our earthly efforts at accountability are important. We must stand up against oppression, bigotry, lies, and violence. I do not believe that unity is founded on ignoring harm that has been done, thus perpetuating it. I DO believe that unity requires all parties to be at the table. And none of the people of Nineveh could make to the place that is set for them at the table of welcome if their city was destroyed by firey divine wrath. Perhaps it is God’s kind of mercy that lays the foundation for the real repentence, learning, and healing.
For as the poet also said, “If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children's birthright.”