Preparing for the First Sunday in Lent: Two Days before Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 51
Old Testament: Jonah 4:1-11
Epistle: Romans 1:8-17
Artist of souls, you sculpted a people for yourself out of the rocks of wilderness and fasting. Help us as we take up your invitation to prayer and simplicity, that the discipline of these forty days may sharpen our hunger for the feast of your holy friendship, and whet our thirst for the living water you offer through Jesus Christ. Amen.
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11).
There’s that moment sitting in the movie theater near the end of the film when the bad guy, the villain of the story gets his comeuppance, the one who caused so much suffering and death. Inevitably, the occupants of the theater break out into applause because justice has finally been served. We human beings like seeing the bad guys and gals get what they deserve. It is a sweet feeling.
At the end of the book of Jonah, the prophet is not in a sweet mood. He has preached repentance to the people of Nineveh after attempting unsuccessfully to flee from his God appointed task. The Ninevites take Jonah’s message of repentance seriously and they respond accordingly.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Humans and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:6-9).
One would think Jonah would be pleased that his proclamation across the city was not for naught, but Jonah is dejected. He’s been robbed of the feeling of sweet revenge of seeing the inhabitants destroyed by divine judgment. He is unable to applaud at the end of the story. God decides to spare the people because they have repented.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3)
The Bible says that God wishes none should perish, but that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Like God, God’s people are in the business of reconciliation. The problem is reconciliation is hard work and less satisfying than exacting sweet revenge. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). After two thousand years, we who follow Jesus still find that difficult. If we are honest, like Jonah we would rather our foes be destroyed than loved into the kingdom.
Revenge may feel sweet, but what is truly sweet and satisfying is the reconciliation of those we have labeled as Ninevites. Heaven, Jesus tells us rejoices over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10). No doubt the heavenly throng was exuberant over the turning of the entire city of Nineveh, while Jonah sits in the shade and sulks.
When it comes to repentance and reconciliation, may we be so heavenly minded. Had Jonah been so oriented, he would have realized he accomplished some earthly good.
PRAYER: God of the living, through baptism we pass from the shadow of death to the light of the resurrection. Remain with us and give us hope that, rejoicing in the gift of the Spirit who gives life to our mortal flesh, we may be clothed with the garment of immortality, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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