Recently, as part of our church small group, we’ve been doing the Bible Course by the Bible Society which despite some questionable jokes has been a wonderful way to go back to basics, looking at the shape of the text as a whole and the glorious beauty of the story pointing to Jesus from the very beginning.
One of the weeks that struck me most was on Jonah – the reluctant prophet swallowed by a big fish – it’s a story I can’t say I’ve studied much. It was a part of my Sunday school teaching, but as an adult, it’s not a book I can say I’ve read avidly.
In a wonderful alignment of timing, Tim Keller then released his own book on Jonah entitled “The Prodigal Prophet” and as I read it, and reflected again on the text I couldn’t help but be captivated by the mercy which sits right at the heart of Jonah’s story.
So much of my life (and probably yours) is focussed on justice; for the poor, the neglected, the wronged and yet I feel that in that pursuit I’ve forgotten mercy.
It’s so easy to be outraged – but so much more difficult to be merciful.
And yet we are here but for the glorious mercy of God. Jesus’ crucifixion was the greatest act of mercy there ever has been – because despite being deserving of God’s wrath – we received a pardon and Jesus himself took on our punishment.
Jonah is the antithesis of mercy, and, as Keller points out, very much like the older brother depicted in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
It’s a role I’ve found myself in, I’ve been a christian for well over twenty years and when bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people I want to know why, I want to have a silent tantrum because it’s not fair!
But over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded that mercy isn’t fair.
Jonah had a good point when he didn’t want to witness to the Ninevites – they’d shown themselves to be a despicable people – and his God-given mission was more than a little dangerous. Yet even when he eventually went to the Ninevah to give God’s message – he was outraged when the people believed God and were spared the promised disaster!
He rants to God and speaks of God’s mercy not as a blessing, but a curse.
“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
And then the book ends, as the parable of the Prodigal Son does, with a cliffhanger, without conclusion and without mercy.
As Tim Keller writes:
“Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people, for instance, the wicked Ninevites and blesses the good people, for instance, Jonah and his countrymen. When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair.”
It’s in the reading and re-reading of this book that I’ve caught a glimpse of the God I’ve made in my own image; one who, like some kind of superhero swoops in and catches the bad guy, who characterises us heroes or villains.
When in actual fact, in the eyes of God there are no heroes or villains, we are simply His children.
Justice has it’s rightful place in society and theology; don’t get me wrong, and I won’t stop fighting against injustice, but I will try to remember that God is one of mercy, that Jesus died for us when we were still sinners. As Romans 5:6-8 proclaims:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That is mercy, and this is our God of mercy, that we might not forget the mercy shown to us.