How do you feel when someone who deserves to be punished seems to get off scot-free? It generally makes most people feel angry. I don’t know if you saw Oscar Pistorius in the news this week, he’s the former para-Olympian who’s been convicted of murdering his girlfriend back in 2013, the prosecutors were pushing for a 15 year sentence, but he’s just been sentenced to six years prison, and he’ll be eligible for parole next year. And what was the public reaction? Anger.
Same thing with Gerard Baden Clay . He’s the real-estate agent who killed his wife in 2012. Last year his sentence was downgraded from murder to manslaughter. What was the public response? 73,000 angry people signed a petition for an appeal, thousands marched in King George Square.
You get angry, don’t you, when people get off lightly? You shake your fist at the justice system and you cry, no mercy! I know I do sometimes. And sure, sometimes, that’s justified, sometimes there’s been a genuine miscarriage of justice in the courts, and we’re right to get upset about that. But sometimes, we get angry simply because we don’t want people who have done the wrong thing to be shown mercy.
But it’s interesting, isn’t it, because when we find ourselves on the wrong side of the law, whether it be something minor like a speeding fine or a parking ticket or something more serious, we have a completely different attitude, don’t we? You’re not crying “no mercy” or or “make me pay”; you’re begging for mercy too. And going through an experience like that should make you more merciful to others.
Now according to that logic, Christians, of all people, should be the most merciful people around, because if you’re a Christian here today, then you believe that you have been shown incredible mercy by God. And that should make you incredibly merciful to others. But unfortunately, that’s often not the case. I know the media likes to beef this stuff up a bit, but my observation is that Christians often come across as angry and judgmental, rather than merciful. Christians often seem to be looking down their noses at others, rather than empathising. And having compassion.
Today we’re looking at the story of someone who gets angry – not at the justice system – but at God. His name is Jonah, and he gets angry at God because God shows mercy and kindness to people who Jonah believes should be punished.
If you’ve just joined us today, we’ve been in a three-part series on the Old Testament book of Jonah, this is our third and final episode. If you’ve been here the last couple of Sundays, you might remember we’ve seen that Jonah isn’t just a cute little story about a guy who gets swallowed by a fish and lives to tell the tale. The book of Jonah is actually a portrait of a pathetic prophet who doesn’t fear God, who doesn’t repent, and as we’ll see this week, who gets angry at God’s mercy.
Part 1, we saw Jonah’s lack of fear of God compared to the sailors – God tells Jonah to preach in Nineveh, a huge city in Assyria, the Empire that wiped out Jonah’s hometown, and Jonah fearlessly disobeys God: he jumps on a ship headed the other way. Then when God sends a great storm, the pagan sailors get the message. And fearing God, they chuck Jonah overboard; and the storm stops.
Part 2, last week we saw Jonah’s lack of repentance compared to the Ninevites, the wicked enemies of Israel. Jonah prays to God from the belly of the fish, but there’s no real remorse; and he gets vomited out on the beach. He finally goes to Nineveh, but he’s half-hearted about it: he dips his toe in Nineveh – walks just A third of the way through the city; he preaches a lousy one sentence sermon; and yet, surprise surprise, the Ninevites repent.
This week, we’re in chapter 4. And we’ll see the starkest comparison in the book: Jonah’s lack of mercy compared to God’S mercy. This is the part of the book where we learn why Jonah was running away from God in the first place. The author of Jonah has been saving this bit till the very end, this is the twist at the end of the tale. Have a look at how Jonah responds to God’s mercy on the Ninevites in the first verse of the chapter. Jonah 4 verse 1:
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.It literally says “and he burned”, he’s hot with anger. Why’s he angry? Verse 2.
2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.Now that’s nothing new. That’s what God said to Moses right back at the start of the Bible. “I’m slow to anger, and abounding in love.” So this is Jonah quoting God’s own words from Exodus 34. Throwing them back in God’s face. “I knew you wouldn’t destroy the Ninevites, I knew it, I knew it from the start, because you’re so flippin’ gracious and merciful.” How crazy is that? He accuses God of being merciful of all things. He seems to have forgotten that God’s merciful character is what saved him from drowning in the raging sea. In fact, Jonah’s forgotten that God’s merciful character is what saved his own people the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in the first place. Jonah’s got no problem with mercy being shown to him and his people, as long as it isn’t shown to anyone else. And he’s ridiculously angry. Verse 3.
3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”And now, everything becomes horribly clear. As you look back on the rest of the book through the lens of chapter 4, you can understand why Jonah wasn’t afraid of drowning in chapter 1, and why he wasn’t truly repentant even after God saves him: hehates the Ninevites, and he’d rather die than see them find mercy. He didn’t want to preach to them not because he was afraid of them, but because he knew that if he told them how to be saved, God might not destroy them.
And how does God respond? He asks Jonah a simple question. Are you right to be angry? But there’s no response from Jonah. Silence. It seems as though Jonah’s thrown a little tanty. “I’m not talking to God until he destroys this stupid city.” Have a look at verse 5. “I’m going to go up this little hill and set up my little shelter, with this nice view of the city, and I’m going to sit here until I see some fireworks.”
Now that’s a bit odd when you think about it, because the Ninevites have all repented, they’ve all done what they were supposed to do. You couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. But it’s almost as though Jonah is anticipating that God will change his mind; it’s as though he thinks to himself, “I’ve given God my ultimatum, kill me or kill the Ninevites. And surely he’ll destroy them, and not me, one of his precious prophets.”
But God doesn’t destroy the Ninevites, instead he gives Jonah the God that he wants. You want an unmerciful God? Alright. You got it. Verse 6. God makes a leafy, shady plant to grow over Jonah. And Jonah’s over the moon about it. But then, the very next day, verse 7, God sends a worm to eat the plant and kill it. And then, verse 8 , he sends a scorching hot wind. And then at noon, the sun is blazing on Jonah’s head. You see what’s happening? Jonah’s burning hot with anger, he wants God to burn the ninevites, but God burns jonah instead.
But notice that in all of this, God doesn’t kill Jonah. Jonah keeps on asking for death and wishing he was dead, verses 8 and 9, but God never goes, “ok, tssss. Smite.” No. God keeps showing Jonah mercy. When Jonah doesn’t respond to God’s question in verse 4, God tries asking it again in verse 9. He keeps pursuing Jonah, even when Jonah ignores him. He sends Jonah the plant and then kills it, not because he’s just being mean and trying to mess with him. He’s trying to get Jonah’s attention. He’s patiently trying to teach Jonah something.
God sometimes does this in our lives too. Sometimes he gives us good things, and then he takes them away, not because he’s trying to be mean, but because he’s trying to get our attention, and he’s trying to teach us something.
And what’s he trying to teach Jonah? He’s trying to teach him that mercy is his business, and he can dish it out how he likes. Verses 10 and 11. The plant represents Nineveh. God is saying to Jonah, you cared about this plant even though you didn’t raise it or nurture it and you were gutted when it was destroyed, so how much more do you think I care about this city of people, which I did nurture and care for, which is worth more than your plant? If you had mercy and compassion for the stupid little plant, shouldn’t I have mercy on the many people and animals of Nineveh?
And then the narrative just ends. . Full stop. There’s no happy ending to the story of Jonah. Jonah gets angry at God’s mercy to the Ninevites, and we’re not told if he ever gets over it.
Now why does the author of Jonah just end the book like that? Why doesn’t he tell us what happens next? He ends it like that because he wants God’s final rhetorical question here to be the main point of the book: Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, shouldn’t I pity or have compassion on that great city? It’s not just a question addressed to Jonah, it’s addressed to the reader as well; and it might not seem like it to you, but this was a mind-blowing, offensive question to the original readers, the Israelites.
You see, the Israelites were God’s people, they were the descendants of Abraham, and God had made a special promise to be their God, and they would be his people. But you see, the whole point of the nation of Israel wasn’t to be exclusive and to keep God from everyone else; no, the point of Israel was to bring God to the nations. Israel was the nation whose job was to make their merciful God known to all the other nations. God was always planning to step into humanity, into one nation and race,not just for them alone, but so that he could be God and king over all races and nations.
Jonah hadn’t understood that. And so God’s mercy to a nation other than Israel, especially an enemy of Israel like the Ninevites or Assyrians, it didn’t make any sense. And it didn’t make sense to the rest of Israel either.
And about 700 years later, when God finally did enter humanity, as an Israelite, called Jesus, God’s unconditional mercy still didn’t make any sense to them. In fact, Jesus himself told a story to make the same point. A story of two sons. One son asks his father for his inheritance and then he goes off and wastes it all on wild parties and women, and then he comes back to his father begging for mercy; and his father forgives him and throws a welcome home party. But the older brother in the story, the brother who’s been at his father’s side the whole time, he’s angry. He’s angry because he doesn’t want his younger brother to be shown mercy. He wants him to be punished. And Jesus’ point in telling that parable was to teach his listeners, to teach the Israelites, God isn’t just merciful to you, he’s merciful to everyone. He’s merciful to Israelites and non-Israelites. He’s merciful to the religious and the irreligious, to the people who try hard to keep all the rules, and the people who have wandered way off the track. He’s merciful to all kinds of people who humbly turn back to him, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. So don’t be angry when God shows mercy to others. Join the party! Celebrate the Father’s mercy and compassion.
Look, if you’re someone here today who hasn’t seen that compassion in action, and you haven’t seen Christians as people who celebrate God’s compassion for anyone who turns back to him, I just want to say sorry. Because as I said at the beginning, Christians ought to be people who are the most compassionate and merciful to others. Why? Because Christians are people who have had all their wrongdoings mercifully forgiven.
And it’s not as though this wrongdoing goes unpunished. It’s not as though God just turns a blind eye on what people have done wrong. Because Jesus himself went to the cross to take the punishment of every wrong on himself. To balance the books completely and perfectly. At the cost of his own life. That’s what mercy costs.
But again – if you’re a Christian, it’s the same costly mercy you’ve received that God offers to everyone else. Which means if you’re someone who calls yourself a Christian, and you’re not a merciful or compassionate person yourself, what’s the story? Sure, you might not necessarily get angry at God for showing mercy to others, but are there people in your life who you’re unmerciful towards? Are there people in your life that you refuse to forgive? Or people you don’t want to show any love or kindness to, because you find them annoying, or difficult to talk to, or just different to yourself? Are we a community who mercifully and lovingly accept each other, despite each other’s flaws, or do we just pick and choose the people we want to be around, the people we like?
I know that I’m like that. I know that my heart’s natural disposition is to be unmerciful. To avoid the people I don’t like. And I got to reminding myself, Jayesh, you have been shown incredible mercy by God. How about you think about being a bit more merciful to others?
As I’ve been studying Jonah for the last three weeks in preparation for these sermons, I keep discovering that I am more and more like Jonah than I realise. And that’s the point of the book – you’re not meant to read the book of Jonah and think to yourself, what a pathetic prophet, I’m glad I’m not like him. You’re meant to think to yourself, what a pathetic prophet, and I’m exactly like him. And I needed to be shown mercy too. Which means I need to be a whole lot more generous about sharing that mercy with others.