by Daniel Harrell
Some of you may know I am a Patriots fan—before Belichick and Brady, before Spygate and Deflategate, back when they were truly terrible and cursed with the Red Sox. It’s been an unprecedented eighteen year run—tonight makes an eighth Super Bowl in that stretch, though it’s never a sure thing. Despite the odds, I know better than to be overconfident. The Patriots won their five Super Bowls under Billy and the GOAT by a slender total of nineteen points, and lost their two by a total of seven points, both to the New York Football Giants, the first with that ridiculous helmet catch by David Tyree, spoiling what had been a New England undefeated season. I’d rashly wagered a loudmouth Giants fan that the Patriots would mercilessly mow down her boys in blue as with every other team they’d rolled over that season. Following the humiliating loss, I had to cover myself with a Giants hat and jersey—the closest I’ve ever come to sackcloth and ashes—and walk the streets of Boston professing loudly my love for New York in utter disgrace.
Here in Jonah 3, our reluctant prophet, swallowed up then puked up on shore by a God-ordained fish, is commanded to face the nefarious Ninevites—pagan and perverse, the Philadelphia Eagles of the ancient Near East—and boldly prognosticate a resounding rout of their team, an undefeated Assyrian army that had brutally overrun the whole region. You’d expect such silliness to be met with derision and scorn, but instead, we read, “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth, including their kingly quarterback, who “rose from his throne, took off his jersey, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” For this potentate to so humble himself at the words of an insufferable Hebrew prophet before the game had even been played was nothing short of remarkable—so much so that Jesus commended its virtue centuries later as an indictment against the arrogance of his own generation. Not only did the King of Nineveh repent, but all of Nineveh reformed, and without any assurance of mercy. They bowed to a deity they could not identify except with the Hebrew generic elohim. “Who knows” said the king, “perhaps even yet this God will relent and change his mind and turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
For those who know elohim to be Yahweh—the idea that the Lord should change his mind may sound absurd. We read in the Torah how “God is not a human, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind.” Except that God did change his mind in Genesis when He repented of having made people. God changed his mind in Exodus and relented from obliterating those golden calf-lovers. Likewise in Joel and in Amos, God changed his mind about his plans for his people. In 1 Samuel 15, God said he never repents but then did it over having made Saul Israel’s first human king.
If such changes of heart on God’s part upset you (and as we will see it clearly upset Jonah), it may be because we tend to compare it to our own vacillations—whether due to poor decision-making skills, lack of information, fear, anxiety or deceit—none of which characterize God. We read, “God is not a human, that he should change his mind,” but a better rendering might be, “God does not change his mind like we humans do.” Unlike humans, the Lord does not say one thing and then do another, nor does he change his mind for frivolous reasons or for no reason at all. God is neither capricious nor arbitrary but consistent and reliably merciful—never changing in regard to dependability of character or steadfastness of love.
Because the Lord loves us, he responds to repentance and relents from giving us what our deeds deserve. The apostle Peter wrote, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” And Peter would know: he’s the disciple famous for denying ever knowing Jesus when Jesus needed him most, three times in a row.
Such abundance of grace is good news for sinners—but not so good for those sinned against. This will be Jonah’s gripe. Nineveh was a nation devoted to violence and plunder. The prophet Nahum labeled it “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and never without victims.” But our faith leaves no wiggle room when it comes to extending a hand. “How many times must I forgive someone who sins against me?” Peter asked. “More than you can count,” Jesus replied.
This is the heart of the gospel and very hard to accept. I’ve known and counseled numerous victims of a variety of sins and offenses who’ve sworn to never make peace no matter how remorseful their offenders. How can donning sackcloth and promising to do better suffice for the hurt I’ve endured? “I need a God who gets even,” one person admitted, “a just and fair God who makes my enemies suffer too.”
That the Lord is so merciful drove Jonah crazy. He hated how God’s grace was so free. The Lord had ordered Jonah to Nineveh to warn them their days were numbered—to give them another chance. But Jonah fled in the opposite direction, the only prophet ever to disobey a direct order. He boarded a boat bound for the other end of the earth. He wanted nothing to do with this loving God—so God bombarded his boat with a ferocious storm. Seeing his own days were now numbered, Jonah gave up—but he didn’t give in. Instead, he went overboard, willing to drown rather than do as he was told. But then God commanded a great fish eat Jonah alive and vomit him onto the beach—a messier kind of grace, Jonah’s own second chance. God reissued his order: “Now, get up, go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
Jonah complied, albeit with the least he can get away with. He trudged into Nineveh and delivered a one sentence sermon. Five words in Hebrew that translate to eight in English: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah doesn’t say how. He doesn’t even say God. But five words proved more than enough, and resulted in a stampede of contrition—an altar call on steroids—and a challenge to long-winded preachers ever since. As with the heathen sailors on Jonah’s boat, the unbelieving Ninevites took Jonah more seriously than religious generations took Jeremiah or Joel or Amos or Peter or Paul or even Jesus, for that matter. For the righteous, it’s hard enough to have your enemies offered grace. But what’s unbearably hard is to be told we need grace too! Over and over, Jesus called God’s people to change, and they couldn’t stand it. What had they done?
I taught a class a few years ago at Bethel Seminary on the topic of Theology and American Culture. Were I to teach it again I would title it with the plural: Theologies and American Cultures. By 2050, America will be a country with no ethnic majority. Korean-American Professor Soong-Chan Rah, speaking to us via FaceTime from Chicago on his smartphone, noted how current majority-culture Christians, when describing theological perspectives different from their own, will use labels such as Asian theology or black theology or liberation theology. But when speaking of our own theology we just say theology—this despite the phenomenal emergence of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, numeric growth that has already lapped Christianity in the West.
We sometimes fondly remember a nostalgic time when things seemed simpler: Everybody affirmed the same values, spoke the same religious language, understood all the symbols and had their beliefs buttressed by social mores woven into everyday life. Sure, other cultures existed, but they just melted into the pot. These days, the Melting Pot has become more of a Super Bowl Buffet, a pluralistic smorgasbord of distinctive flavors and tastes. Buffalo wings share billing with Somali sambusas and Laotian pho. There’s not really a main dish anymore, or better, it all tastes good.
Jonah preached during a politically prosperous time for ancient Israel. They were living the dream of favored-nation status—strong and rich, five trophies and counting—but they grew complacent and started to gloat. Confusing God’s glory for their own, they hogged it all for themselves. Jonah breathed in this air of superiority, presuming the favor of the Lord was his right rather than God’s gift. The last thing he wanted was for those Assyrians to have a share a seat at the table.
When you’re used to privilege, equality can feel like oppression. We struggle against the fear and disgust we harbor against those unlike us and whom we don’t like. Jonah despised Assyrians like most America hates the Patriots—their constant winning, their mastery of injury and scandal, their insufferable fan base. The last thing Jonah wanted was those people showing up in his city or at at his church or, God forbid, at his table with their food. So what they wear burlap and say the right words, so what that they turn from their evil—who’s to say that once they’ve been spared they don’t go back to their vicious ways? They were that kind of people.
And they were. Within fifty years, the Assyrians would rise up and run over Israel, leveling the Northern Kingdom and carrying its citizenry into exile. The worst part was how God’s hand was in it. The Lord condemned Israel’s complacency and conceit, sent them prophets like Amos and Hosea who told them to knock it off, but they didn’t. And so the repentant Assyrians became the Lord’s ironic instrument of judgment against his own unrepentant chosen people. When it comes to justice, as with grace, God plays no favorites.
But God does change his mind. Divine, righteous anger can be interrupted, halted or completely turned aside. In an analogous passage from Joel that gets read every Ash Wednesday, Yahweh speaks from the cusp of his retributive justice to declare, “The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. No one can endure it.” “But even now,” declares the LORD, even then with one last gasp, “return to me with all your heart… Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
How can this be? How can a God devoted to justice and righteousness ever relent in the face of wrong? This is the scandal of grace. God so loving the world that Jesus comes as lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking sin onto himself: his own body and blood shed for us. The day of the Lord remains dreadful and great—a final day of true justice when the wheat and the fish and the sheep get sorted from the chaff and the chum and the goats. As risen and righteous, only Christ truly knows what’s what; only he gets to do the sorting. “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” Jonah prayed while on the cusp of being digested himself. There are any number of Hebrew words for salvation, but Jonah prayed the word yeshua, the same word given as the name for Jesus.
Over and over with the gospel, those who presume for ourselves power and privilege and position and righteousness and goodness end up tossed in the sea. And so we come to this table to be swallowed up, so to speak, overcome by a grace that with its own burden of grace, swallowed up and spewed out to the world for love’s sake.