Unbounded Mercy

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                Jan. 24, 2021

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Our lectionary reading for today contains a segment from the book of Jonah. It has all of the drama, tragedy and humour of a great story with a number of poignant punchlines. It was not written as an historical account, but a moral story with a powerful message. Jonah felt a distinct call from God to go to a foreign city of Ninevah and call them to repentance. Jonah did everything in his power to escape from this assignment that he was sure was going to end in disaster. But after going from a sinking ship to a large fish to huge waves, Jonah eventually decided to stop fighting God’s call and preach repentance to the huge city of Ninevah. The ruler of the city took Jonah’s words seriously and called a halt to the entire city’s life. Everyone was to cease work, cease studies, cease everything they were doing and go home. You’d think a pandemic had hit the city!

The difference between Ninevah and us is that they were given a task. They were to identify everything that caused harm and injustice in their city and to change it. They were to repent of personal sources of injustice, as well as systemic. They were given 40 days to transform themselves and their city. (This does make me wonder what would have happened if we had all been given the task of reflection and reparation during our long solitude?) After an intense time of fasting and repentance, Ninevah was transformed and God also repented of plans to punish them.

You would think that Jonah would have rejoiced that the people took his words seriously. But no–this the very disaster Jonah had predicted. Why did he consider it a disaster?  Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrians—the very people who had conquered Israel and sent their leaders into exile. The Assyrians were despised for their brutality. Jonah was being asked to call them to account, but he didn’t want them to repent because, in his words of anger to God, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  Jonah knew that if the people of Ninevah headed his warning, God would save them—even love them! God did that very thing, which Jonah considered an anathema!

Now—I want to bring this story a little closer to home. Archaeologists tell us that this ancient city of Ninevah is none other than Mosul, the last holdout of ISIS in Iraq. As we know, ISIS launched a brutal reign of terror against both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, as well as Jews, Christians and other religious minorities. In spite of various religious conquests of Mosul over two millennia, Christians remained there in large numbers. Until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were about 45,000 Christians living in Mosul. Christians then began to leave and when ISIS took over in 2014, most of those remaining fled for their lives. Monasteries, cathedrals and churches were trashed. Now that ISIS has finally been defeated, the world is trying to figure out what to do with ISIS prisoners, including women and their children. Should they be repatriated with their countries of origin? Most want only punishment and banishment of this despised, brutal enemy. History has an uncanny way of repeating itself and I think we know how God would respond.

The astounding thing about the story of Jonah is that it states very clearly that God is a God of mercy and steadfast love not only for Jewish believers who honour Jonah as their prophet, but also for those of other religions—including enemies who have had a history of brutal invasion. Even more, this is one of the very few places in scripture where it says that God is concerned about the welfare of all the creatures of this earth. The very last verse of Jonah contains God’s defense of the protection of the people and the animals: “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?”

This is a great verse for animal lovers. It’s also a great verse that challenges us to literally love our enemies—even those who have inflicted upon the world a reign of terror. It’s about mercy and forgiveness that crosses every border and boundary wall that we construct.

I’m now going to bring this even closer to home. Just over a week ago, two men pleaded guilty to charges of killing Jaime Adao Jr. They were high on meth at the time and chose guilty pleas, even though they had a good chance of charges being reduced. This meant that the family didn’t have to listen to Jaime’s 911 call one more time. His mother, Imelda, heard about the violent upbringings of both the men during the court hearings. She said that when she heard about their stories, she felt empathy for them, believing that they would not have done such things if they had had loving childhoods. She then sent the two men a message of forgiveness. “I believe in God,” she said as her voice choked with tears, “God is love and you have to forgive. How can God forgive me my sin if I am not able to forgive also?”

I honestly don’t know how I would respond. There’s a good chance that I would be so filled with rage if someone killed someone I love, that I would be another Jonah—distressed about the magnitude of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But I also believe that healing can only come through God’s grace and love. Revenge and punishment are more likely to harden hearts than to heal. This is the ancient wisdom of the story of Jonah that we are still trying to learn.

There is one more piece to the story of Mosul. A couple of months ago, something amazing happened there that did not make the world news. Last November, a number of Muslims began to clean up the rubble in a Mosul cathedral. They said that after the city was liberated from ISIS, a new mentality of inter-religious compassion began to grow. They want the Christians to know that Mosul is not complete without them. By restoring the cathedral, they are saying to their former Christian neighbours, “Come back. You belong here as much as we do. You have a rich history here and this is your home as well as ours. We commit ourselves to take care of you and your places of worship.”

Jonah is a prophet honoured not only by Jews and Christians, but also by Muslims. Our three religions share the same story of a God who showers upon all people mercy and forgiveness.