A Wideness in God’s Mercy Our sensibilities have been outraged by the gruesome mutilation of the bodies of six of our

jawans by Pakistani brigands. Even more brutal is the fact that they were captured on May 14 and tortured for more than a week before killing them. Still worse is the deception of the Pakistani army chiefs who said that they had no knowledge of these missing jawans when the Indian authorities initiated inquiries. When this barbaric act was confirmed by a Red Cross post-mortem, and telecast nation-wide the day before Indo-Pak talks were to begin, my immediate reaction was: “To hell with talks! Enough of soft options! Justice must be done! Our soldiers must be avenged! Teach Pakistan a lesson they’ll never forget! Blast them to smithereens! The government must be crazy to talk to mad-dog murderers and expect them to change!” Jonah must have reacted exactly the same way when Yahweh commissioned him to go and talk to the people of Nineveh. For the Ninevites had ravaged the Israelites and reduced Israel to rubble. Nahum describes Nineveh as the “city of bloodshed, (bloody city) utterly deceitful, full of booty -- no end to her plunder!” (3:1) “For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” he asks (3:19). Zephaniah had prophesied Nineveh’s destruction in vitriolic oracles of doom (2:1315). Nineveh, which is today’s Northern Iraq, became the Assyrian capital under Sennacherib (704-681) and remained the capital until the end of the empire. In 722 BC Assyria captured Samaria and deported its citizens (2 Kgs 17). Though Nineveh is described quantitatively as a ‘great city’ (1:2, 3:2, 4:11), an ‘exceedingly great city’ (3:3), ‘three days journey in breadth’ (3:3) and with a population of 1,20,000 (4:11); it is described qualitatively as having a reputation for wickedness (1:2), evil and violence (3:8,10). Asking Jonah to be an ambassador to Nineveh was like asking the brother of a soldier who had been tortured and killed in Kargil to accept a peace mission to Pakistan. God was calling Jonah to offer a future to the very country that had put an end to Israel! No wonder the reluctant Jonah fled to Tarshish. But the ship he absconded on proved to be his ‘Titanic’. He ended up in the belly of a huge fish who could not stomach him for long and vomited him onto dry land. After being digested by the fish, Jonah was more pliable to listen to the word of God, which came to him a second time. He picked up his megaphone and began to blast the eardrums of the Ninevites with the prophecy of doom. And lo and behold! The Ninevites repented! And God repented as well! He calls off the destruction he had planned against the city. They change their mind and so God changes his mind as well. Repentance is metanoia--a change of mind. God repents- the Hebrew
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He ‘appoints’ (manah) a castor oil plant to grow over Jonah as “a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort” (4:2).the Hebrew root ‘nahar’ describes the prophet’s anger. God is whimsical and capricious.8. but instead of rejoicing. And so he reiterates 2 . It was sheer madness! Had God not punished Israel in 721 BC and Judah in 587 BC by allowing foreigners to destroy them completely? Why then. God appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah (1:17). he prays thrice that the Lord end his life (4:3. Nineveh had taken up the sword and should perish by the sword! By pardoning and saving Nineveh God had circumvented justice. slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness. It is not so much God’s compassion. Now. Jonah is fuming with rage. was he letting Nineveh off the hook now? Such discrimination on the part of God was unjust. and then God appoints a scorching east wind to ruffle and rattle Jonah (4:8). Why has Jonah done a theological somersault in his faith? What is Jonah’s problem? Why is he griping about God showing mercy to Nineveh? Has he not just recited the great Israelite creed affirming that Yahweh was “a gracious and compassionate God. Jonah had also lost face. Jonah is furious with God for destroying the plant. Jonah literally snorts in fury at the indiscriminate mercy of God. Now. It is actually Jonah who was ‘lost’ not the Ninevites. If God’s justice was warped and if God actions were so unreliable and undependable. God destroys the plant when he should have destroyed Nineveh! God was not angry when he should have been angry! For Jonah. and he burned with anger. Jonah pleads for death because God has given life to the Ninevites. Earlier. Interestingly. God had dealt with Nineveh. But the next day.9).” Earlier Jonah had prayed for life from the belly of the fish and had praised God for saving his life (2:2-9). But that was not his greatest problem as his colleagues in the prophetic ministry too had experiences of unfulfilled prophecy. God appoints a worm to attack the plant and kill it (4:7). and one who relents concerning calamity”? (4:2) What is bugging Jonah is not so much that God repents. And so Jonah slams the door on dialoguing with God and walks out of the city. His prophecy would not be fulfilled now. ‘Nahar’ means nostril and is a symbol of anger. He ends up sulking under a tent he has erected waiting to see what would happen to Nineveh. what difference would faith make after all? Death was the only way out. the same word ‘appoint’ (manah) is used four times in the book each time to refer to a natural phenomena appointed by God to execute his purposes. His credibility had taken a beating. Now God deals with Jonah through an object lesson.word ‘naham’ describes God’s action. but for whom God repents. God appoints a plant to shelter Jonah (4:6). but the object of God’s compassion. 4:1 reads like this in the original: “But this evilled a great evil to Jonah. like Elijah.

extending equally to all of them. nature instructs Jonah. then certainly God should pity Nineveh (and by logical extension. it is God who plays a major role in the story. Throughout the book nature is obedient to God and appointed by God to execute his saving purposes. If Jonah pities the plant. God 13 times. God weaves an argument from creation to compassion. Nature co-operates with God’s plan. (The divine name Yahweh is mentioned 25 times. God shoots back saying: “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work. This is a story about Jonah. Nature turns hostile because one human being has disobeyed God in fulfilling God’s redemptive purposes. A plant shades him. The sailors worship God for restoring the ecological balance. A worm kills the plant. But then come the punchline. he faints and asks to die.20. Of course. In chapter 1 God hurls a great wind against the ship (1:4). which came up overnight and perished overnight.0000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand. and Lord God once). And so God’s compassion is inevitable! Both nature and God play a pivotal role in the book of Jonah. all creatures) because he has in fact created them. And should I not have compassion on Nineveh.his threat of suicide. And thus an ecology of compassion becomes a theology of compassion. God uses creation to argue for compassion on Nineveh. Nineveh cares for its animal population. God has the last word defending his extended compassion to Nineveh’s citizens and its animals. it was not in and of itself sufficient. But when the sailors execute justice by throwing the culprit Jonah into the sea. Nineveh is to God what the plant has become to Jonah. The story reminds us that compassion is supreme in God’s ways with his creatures. God’s repentance rested finally in his own sovereign decision. harmony is restored. the animals of Nineveh join its citizens in collective fasting and repentance. But over and above. Jonah pities a dying plant. Finally. It is a universal compassion. A fierce wind blows upon him. he delights in the plant. Now God appoints the fish as his instrument of salvation to swallow Jonah and deliver him from the sea. In Chapter 4. Ironically. In Chapter 3. God’s compassion. the sun assails him. as well as many animals?” (4:10-11). the heathen have tremendous insight into God’s 3 . he pities the plant. but more precisely about God and Jonah. In 44 verses of the book there are 39 references to God. and which you did not cause to grow. But above all. which he has neither created nor nourished nor known. the book of Jonah hammers home the message of God’s sovereign freedom and superabundant grace. While Nineveh’s repentance was a necessary precondition for God’s repentance. the great city in which there are more than 1. one may argue that God repents only when he saw the Ninevites repenting (Ch 3). provided for them and knows their need.

© 4 .sovereign freedom when they declare thrice (1:6. and willingly surrender ourselves to God as stewards of this glorious creation God has entrusted to our care. And let them return to the LORD. God takes upon himself the evil of Nineveh. God remains ultimately free to decide whether he will have pity (Ex 33:19. even to die. Too often we have played the ‘big brother’ of the Prodigal Son who resented his brother’s homecoming instead of rejoicing over it. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth. For the love of God is broader Than the measure of man’s mind And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind. and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion”). It is high time we willingly surrender ourselves to God as an extension and as instruments of his compassion. Yet God is not capricious. the pain of a thousand plundered cities. God bears the weight of its violence and evil. Compassion is your pain in my heart. Let me close with these beautiful words from the hymn by Frederick Faber (1814-1863): There’s a wideness in God’s mercy Like the wideness of the sea There’s a kindness in his justice Which is more than liberty. Jonah has no right to bring God to court because he is creature. His ultimate will is to save his creatures and he will always act in ways that is finally in accordance with his redemptive purposes.“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. 1:14.’ declares the LORD. Though God may be motivated to save because of human prayer and penitence. Neither are your ways My ways. Perhaps with this in mind. Isaiah would later say: “Let the wicked forsake their ways. remembering the death of Christ. let us remind ourselves that in forgiving Nineveh. As we approach the Eucharistic table. and the unrighteous their thoughts. And He will have compassion on them. ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts. And My thoughts than your thoughts. 3:9) that God does as God pleases. As we celebrate Ecology Sunday it may also be fitting for us to repent of our rapacious attitude to nature. So are My ways higher than your ways.’” God has the right to do what he pleases with Nineveh because he is Creator. For He will abundantly pardon. it may be appropriate for us to identify with Jonah and repent of our self-righteousness. And to our God. During the season of Pentecost. God chooses to suffer for Nineveh.

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