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Is there a problem with God's mercy?

Reflections on Jonah.

Here in Duffield, at the end of August, we had a children’s holiday club across both our churches, studying the book of Jonah. At one level of course this makes perfect sense – here is a nice short book of the bible, with a clearly plotted story, containing adventure, rescue, and a clear statement of God’s mercy.

Who wouldn’t want Jonah 4:2 - where great truths about God are stated - as their memory verse for a holiday club?

'...for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.'

Jonah's story, with a clear link to Matthew 12, is one depicting sin, repentance and redemption. But as we know, Jonah is a little more complicated than that. He is often called a reluctant prophet. Hard-hearted would be closer to the mark. After all, look at the early part of Jonah 4 in more detail:

'But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.' (Jonah 4:1-2, ESV)

Jonah starts the book disobedient and ends the book angry. God is merciful, which for Jonah is the problem: what is God doing being merciful to Nineveh, to the Assyrians, to our enemies? Jonah is a hard-hearted prophet: he does not wish all to hear the good news of God’s mercy and to repent and be saved.

And then we come to the way Jesus refers to this story in Matthew 12. The theme remains hard-heartedness, but in a different direction. The Scribes and Pharisees are asking him for a sign, some kind of miracle that (they say) will convince them that Jesus is who he says he is:

But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12: 39-40)

Jesus will not give them another sign. By Matthew 12 there have already been plenty. The only sign left for them is the sign of Jonah. Of course, Jesus here points to his death and resurrection. Just as Jonah was in the fish for three days, so Jesus will die, and on the third day rise again to life. Jesus continues:

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:41)

The religious leaders will be condemned – for refusing to see the sign, and to see where it points. And so, the ‘wicked’ men of Nineveh will condemn them – for not seeing the signs. For missing what was obvious. For refusing to see what was right in front of them. For refusing to acknowledge the one great than Jonah, Jesus.

If Jonah’s is a difficult response, then the response of the scribes and Pharisees to Jesus is also difficult. Why, having seen the grace and mercy of God shown in Jesus, who came to die and rise again to save his people, why would they reject that grace? Why didn’t they see who Jesus was? Jesus’ answer is clear – they did not want to see it.

If Jonah is a hard-hearted prophet, the religious leaders here are hard-hearted listeners. They do not wish to hear the good news of God’s mercy and to repent and be saved. In both cases we can find mitigating circumstances if we wish. We can understand why Jonah might rather see Israel’s enemy Nineveh destroyed than saved. We know that the religious leaders thought they already had access to God’s mercy through the law and their traditions. And yet both responses are ultimately condemned.

We need of course to be aware of the dangers of hard-heartedness. All of us are hearers of the prophetic word of God, and so we must make sure that we are those who attend to the signs. And if we are to learn from the example of Matthew 12, to attend to the signs that we find it difficult to attend to. And then many of us are speakers of the word. We must not have categories of people to whom we do not wish to offer the grace of God, whether theoretically or actually.

Perhaps however the greatest danger lies in a situation where these two aspects of hard-heartedness combine. Often in our culture today we face a situation where the church lacks confidence or willingness to preach our God who is gracious and merciful, often because of an unwillingness to explain, as Jonah did, why God needs to be merciful. We are often left with platitudes about how loving God is without any real perspective on what that means. For whatever reason, the church is not willing to share with all the good news of God’s mercy and to repent and be saved.

At the same time, there are many people, in the UK and I suspect elsewhere, who are more than happy to receive such platitudes. More than happy to hear nice sounding words about God’s general loveliness, even perhaps to hear about grace, as long as the reason for the need for grace remains obscure. For whatever reason, they do not wish to hear the good news of God’s mercy and to repent and be saved.

In reflecting on Jonah, I wonder if we need to be aware of the danger of joining this conspiracy; because people do not wish to hear, we are not willing to speak. It might be easier to act like Jonah than we think.


Revd. James Hughes is Vicar of the United Benefice of Duffield and Little Eaton. He is vice-chair of the Latimer Trust.



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