Thursday, 22 January 2009

Jonah, Jesus and the Freedom of God

The character of Jonah in the Bible embodies the self-mockery and humility that is central to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Jonah, a prophet who flees from God's commission; who then proclaims the message of destruction to the Ninevehites in a less than exuberant manner; and then, when the Ninevehites repent, and God forgives them, Jonah is so fed up that he wants to die! So Jonah goes out of the city to watch what will happen to the city. God makes a nice shady plant to grow up over him to shade him, but then a worm destroys the plant, and a hot east wind arises, such that Jonah once again wishes to die. And then comes the punchline: Jonah is angry about the demise of the shady plant, a plant for which he did not labour or form. And yet, when God is merciful to the inhabitants of Nineveh and does not destroy them, Jonah is angry. Are not the inhabitants of Nineveh worthy of God's mercy? If Jonah wishes the plant not to die, for which he contributed nothing toward, cannot God spare hundreds of thousands of lives of which all are God's creation?

The answer implied is, "Yes, of course." God is free to be merciful. Many think that Jonah was written after the exile, when the remnant returned from exile out of Babylon. This was a time of a hardening, exclusive and separatist relationship betw Israel and all other people. Jonah reminds the reader that God is not the preserve of a single people, but the God of all, able to show mery even to those not deserving of it. (Nineveh was, after all, th capital of Assyria historically, and it was the Assyrians that destroyed and exiled the northern kingdom in the eighth century BC. For prophecy against Nineveh for its crimes, see Nahum, and Zeph 2:13)

Jesus is the fulfilment of the little parable of Jonah. God is free to bring mercy as God so chooses. Jesus is the active source of salvation for all people. It is too easy to become miserly on behalf of God and make Jesus the point of salvation for just the few chosen ones. Just like Jonah, we might struggle to reconcile justice with mercy, but in Jesus this reconciliation occurs without in any way restricting the freedom of God to bring mercy to the undeserving. Jesus is not just the latest or final way for good, faithful people to show that God should favour them; Jesus is the way in which God will save all people. (Rom 5:15-19) Jesus warns people about the possibility of judgment, and severe judgment at that (the sign of Jonah in Lk 11:29-32 is the repentance and salvation of those people no one expected God to be merciful toward in contrast to the hard hearted listeners of Jesus) but continues to seek out those who might otherwise be lost.

Again, however, let us be careful not to b miserly, albeit oh so subtlely. Many will say that those who do not respond to Jesus, after plenty of opportuity and warning, have condemned themselves. And there is good biblical warrant for this view. But again, it becomes miserly. What if God wishes to save even those whose hearts are so hardened that they do not respond? That is surely what the cross, descent into hell and resurrection is about: God going even to the place of godforsakenness and judgment (hell) to bring the reconciling love of God to those who (according to any reasonable prescription of justice) messed up their salvation.

Out task as a church is not to judge who is in or out, but to proclaim and live the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. This is so even when we wonder if the limits of mercy have been reached. Remember, God is not bound by such restrictions in Jesus Christ.

[The picture above is from the catacombs, and is of Jonah being cast out of the boat.]

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