Most people who think they know the story of Jonah know only that he put to sea to get away from God and ended up being swallowed by a big fish and living to tell the tale. They don’t know the sequel: how God again told Jonah to tell his enemies in the city of Nineveh (the capital of
Assyria) to repent or face disaster, and how Jonah went and preached, and how the people of Nineveh did repent, and how disappointed Jonah was that they escaped disaster! Our Old Testament reading is the conclusion of the story, and contains the remarkable message of the book of Jonah: God loves everyone, even his worst enemies, and wants them to turn from their sin and escape sin’s inevitable punishment.
The population of Nineveh contained many people who were totally unaware of the city’s need for repentance (not knowing their right hand from their left was a picture of ignorance, perhaps also of innocence; God may be referring to the number of children) and also many innocent animals, all of whom would suffer if the city was destroyed. That was the last thing God wanted. The only way to prevent such a disaster was mass repentance, and that required a preacher – Jonah!
Jonah was an Israelite, and he knew how cruel the Assyrians were. As far as he was concerned they all deserved to be annihilated. God had to teach him that there was much more to life than simply giving people (or plants) what they deserved. Not an easy lesson, especially for someone who has suffered violence or injustice.
God is a generous God. Although he has to see that justice is done and evil is punished, he bends over backwards to give people the chance to avoid the inevitable. It may seem like ‘letting them get away with it’, at least for the time being; yet if it gives them the chance of reconciliation with God, it is worth it.
1) One person’s mercy is another’s injustice. Should mercy ever be denied?
2) What lessons can we learn from Jonah’s behaviour?