January 24, 2021; Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today is the only time in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle that we have a reading from the Book of Jonah. That is a shame because this book has a deep and relevant message for our lives. Some of you know that Jonah was the prophet who was swallowed by a whale. But that is not what the Book of Jonah is about. The Book of Jonah is about a disagreement, a standoff, between Jonah and God. The standoff concerns the Assyrians.
The Assyrians were a people of the ancient world hated by all. They ruled a cruel empire and conquered many nations, treating them violently. Jonah certainly hated the Assyrians. He wanted them to be destroyed. He wanted them to suffer for their crimes. But here is where the disagreement of the Book of Jonah emerges. God did not want the Assyrians to be destroyed. God wanted them to change. This is why God sent Jonah to the Assyrians to preach, so that they would repent and become righteous people. Now Jonah did not want to obey God’s command. The last thing he wanted was for the Assyrians to repent and thereby receive God’s love and mercy. But God insists. In today’s first reading, Jonah arrives at Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and preaches. The entire city repents and is saved. This makes Jonah furious. He erupts in anger. He tells God he no longer will serve as his prophet, and he asks God to end his life.
Now the story of the Book of Jonah is told in a fanciful and extreme way, but its relevance to our lives is clear. There are times when you and I, like Jonah, find ourselves in a standoff with God about who deserves God’s love and mercy.
You see, as we live our lives, we take sides. God does not. We consider people who agree with us to be intelligent and worthy of respect and those who disagree with us to be ignorant and to be ignored. But God does not ignore anyone. God loves everyone as a son or daughter. We believe that when someone does something wrong, they should be punished. But the Book of Jonah tells us that God is not looking for punishment. God is looking for an opportunity to show mercy. So, we can find ourselves at a standoff with God, because God is opposed to every expression of partisan thinking. God is against every example of glorified nationalism. God rejects every call for violent retribution. These are ways of thinking into which you and I can be tempted to fall.
But here is the good news of the Book of Jonah. Even if we do fall into partisan and vengeful thinking, God does not reject us. Throughout the whole Jonah story, Jonah remains a nationalistic bigot, but God does not walk away from Jonah. God continues to guide Jonah, to talk to Jonah, and to care for Jonah. God will do the same for us. Even if we are unable to forgive, even if we are unwilling to consider another point of view, even if we are overcome with anger against our enemy, God does not give up on us. God keeps patiently calling for us to change.
Of course, in fact, there can be no standoff between God and us. Both the Bible and our faith tradition tell us that God is always right, and we must accept God’s point of view. But God gives us time to reach that understanding. And until we attain God’s perspective, God continues to walk by our side, loving us as daughters and sons.