Jonah and the Problem of Mercy [Proper 20A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Jonah 3:10-4:11

Jonah and the Problem of Mercy

This is not my idea of biblical hero.  Jonah seems like a jerk.  Am I wrong?  This passage from the book bearing his name is the very end of the book.  And there is no redemptive moment.  In this passage he even builds his own personal grandstand to sit and see what he hopes will be the destruction of an entire city.  He is praying for 120,000 people to die.  And he is furious when they do not.  Jonah seems like a jerk.

And not many people know this part of the story because every complicated Bible story from the Old Testament that has an animal in it is sanitized until it is safe for a nursery wall.  They all get the Kids Bop treatment.  Noah's Ark – the story of the time God killed almost everything on Earth – is the best example – but the Jonah story is very similar.  The whale thing is usually the only thing anyone knows about this complex and powerful book.

When one considers only the big fish section of Jonah, it becomes a nice story of redemption – in the end Jonah does what God asks him to do and the result is that the people are all saved.  It is the happy ending for which we all hope.  A nice little morality tale: when you do what is right, good things happen.  And Jonah learns an important lesson.  And he even saves the day.  And it's cute 'cause there is a fish.

It is all that – unless you keep reading.  The people of Nineveh are saved through the work and witness of the prophet Jonah.  However, this amazing turn of events, the salvation of the city, is not what Jonah wanted at all.  In fact, Jonah is now furious with God.  And it is at this point in the book that we find out why Jonah fled the call of God to begin with.  He wasn't afraid of the task.  He was afraid that God would act in character and spare the people.

That is why Jonah did not obey God to begin with; he wanted God to smite Nineveh.  He didn't want the people to repent; he wanted them to die.

The most shocking line in the book of Jonah is also found at the end of today's psalm.  You will see that context makes a huge difference here.  Our psalm today ends: “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  It is the last line in a hymn of praise.  It is an acknowledgment of the greatness of God.   

Jonah prays the same line – that beautiful line of praise from the psalm.  Only he doesn't mean it as a compliment.  It is an accusation, a complaint.  After Jonah confronts the sinful city and the people repent and God decides not to punish them, Jonah angrily accosts God: “O Lord!” he says. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I 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.  I wish you would just kill me now.”  And then he goes and finds a seat and waits and hopes that God might once again have a change of mind and destroy those terrible people in Nineveh.  What a jerk.

Jonah doesn't look good here.  But it is complicated.  The ones to whom Jonah is sent, they are the enemy.  During the time of the prophet Jonah, Jonah's people were under the savage rule of the Assyrian Empire.  Miguel de la Torre gives us a graphic idea of what the Assyrians would do to the nations they conquered: “If enemies [of the Assyrians] resisted surrender during the siege of their city, once defeated, the population would be horribly mutilated and slaughtered.  Their houses and towns would be torn down and burned, and the flayed skins of their corpses prominently displayed on stakes: a strong warning to others who might think of resisting. Public amusement was provided by leading survivors by a leash attached to a ring inserted through their lip. Vanquished nobles were paraded through the city of Nineveh with the decapitated heads of their princes hanging around their necks while merry tunes were played to entertain the public.  Is is any wonder that the Hebrews despised the people of the empire.”[1]  And Nineveh, the city to which Jonah is sent, it was the capital of that empire. 

Once one realizes to whom God showed mercy, Jonah's anger is less surprising.  He wanted the people who had abused and killed and humiliated his friends and family to get what they deserved.  He wanted to sit and watch as that horrible city burned to the ground. 

And God did not do it.  And in one furious and honest prayer, Jonah laments God's mercy.  Because it went too far.  And he knew it would.  And Jonah weeps because he was the instrument by which God saved his enemies, the enemies of his people.

Jonah is not a redeemed hero.  Jonah is not a petty jerk.  Jonah is human.  And like all humans, Jonah is offended by God's mercy.  Because like all humans Jonah wants to see those bad people get what they deserve.

He wants the bombs to fly.  The poison to pump through their veins.  He wants the napalm to rain from the skies.  He wants those cruel and merciless terrorists in Nineveh to experience the same pain they caused so many others.  He only wants them to get what they deserve.  And they don't.

This is a Gospel story; it is Good News.  120,000 people were saved in this story; they repented of their terrible sins.  And God showed them mercy even though they in no way deserved it.  God's love conquered immense evil.  And isn't that the Good News: that God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love?  Isn't that the Good News: that God loves us even though we in no way deserve it?

But the good news of the Gospel doesn't always feel like good news.  Sometimes it stings.  God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  It's not just praise; it is also accusation; it is also a complaint.  God also loves our enemies and those who hurt us and those who do evil things.  God's mercy violates all sense of fairness.  God's love doesn't even make sense.

Everything we like about God; all the things we celebrate: they are the same things that will at some point break our hearts.  Because we know God and God is too merciful and too loving.

And that means that we like Jonah must spend our lives coming to terms with this God.  And when we lament God's mercy, God will be merciful with us.  And when we argue with God's love, God will love us.  And when we sit in our pain and heartbreak and anger and rail against God and God's goodness, God will listen and stay with us.  Because, whether we like it or not, that's just how God is.   


[1]   Liberating Jonah, 11.