At this morning’s Eucharist, the first reading was Jonah 3:1-10. You may remember that in this short book Jonah is called by God to go to the great city of Nineveh and call them to repent. But Jonah heads in the opposite direction: “he sets out to flee to Tarshish” (1:3a). And for good reason. According to the prophet Nahum Nineveh was a vile place, “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder” (Nah.3:1). It was also the enemy of God’s people, having deported their ancestors in the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century BCE. To respond to God’s call would undoubtedly put the prophet at risk—and for what? Does anybody really care if this loathsome people repents?
But God doesn’t give up on Jonah. God rescues him from drowning by swallowing him into the belly of a large fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah thanks God for delivering him, and once spewed out on dry land God calls him a second time. This time he accepts the call and goes to Nineveh and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4b)
What happens? The despicable people of Nineveh don’t listen and Jonah is run out of town. Not so fast. That’s what we expect. What actually happens? The people of Nineveh—wicked, vile pagans though they are—believed God and they began to fast on the spot. And not only the people, but the king as well. When the king received this news, he too joined the fast and proclaimed that the entire kingdom, including animals, would join the fast, humble itself and bring an end to its violent and evil ways. The end result: “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (3:10).
Surely Jonah is overjoyed? What preacher wouldn’t want their words to bring such a transformation in society? Well, not this preacher. As the book draws to a close Jonah is very displeased and angry. Why? Because not only had he announced that Nineveh would be destroyed by God, and God hadn’t done that, Jonah’s God was turning out to be what Jonah had feared: A God whose love extends even to the Assyrian sinners. This is what Jonah’s final prayer reveals (4:2). Jonah’s real fear wasn’t that the Ninevites would reject him. No. The reason he had fled to Tarshish was that he had a hunch that God’s love was bigger than he wanted it to be. If God loves the Assyrians too, then Jonah wants out.
Of course, this isn’t just a story about Jonah, it is a story about us. The sign at our church says, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I love it. But hasn’t it on occasion troubled you? How do we react to the cities—the Nineveh’s in our own country—full of vile people and evil practices? Don’t we begrudge—even just a little bit—God wanting to be as generous to them as to us. Don’t we churchgoers feel at least slightly more entitled to God’s steadfast love, given that we actually worship this God. Like the laborers in the vineyard who have worked all day long, aren’t we envious that God is equally generous to those who have come late in the day (Matt. 20: 1-16). I suspect that we also deny that we are envious of Nineveh’s dramatic repentance. The biblical story is one story after another of how the Jews and Jesus’ disciples never “get it,” and here these outsiders beat us at our own game.
Lent is a season to discover that when it comes to God’s steadfast love there are no insiders and outsiders. All are in. God really is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). And this applies to everyone—even Nineveh—no exceptions.