Malankara World

Sermons, Articles on Nineveh Lent (Three Day Lent)

Homily on Jonah and Nineveh

by Fr. Dan

According to Mark's gospel, Jesus' first message was 'Reform your lives and believe in the good news.'

In sharp contrast, Jonah's message was bad news: "40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed." But both messages amount to the same thing, with only a difference in emphasis. The bad news comes first, at least implicitly, then the good. The bad news is "If you keep on the way you are going now, God will destroy you.' The good news is 'If you turn around and follow God's way, He will spare you."

Jesus implied the first part by calling for repentance. Jonah didn't mention the last part, about being spared, in his message, because frankly, he hated the Ninevites because of the way they had treated the Israelites, during their captivity in Babylon, and didn't want them to repent and be spared. If you read on after the part we just heard, you will find out how Jonah reacted to God's repenting of the evil He had threatened.

This is the whole point of the short book of Jonah. It contains, under the cover of an amusing story, a powerful teaching about the Mercy of God, who is always ready to pardon anyone who repents. It presents the Ninevites as an example of how far God's mercy can reach when there is sincere repentance, and of Jonah as a counter example, i.e. of one who refused to forgive and show mercy to an enemy.

Ch 4, the last chapter, begins right after our reading with Jonah's reason why he acted as he did. Referring to God's change of heart when the people repented, it says:

"But this was greatly displeasing to Jonah and he became angry. "I beseech you, Lord," he prayed, "is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loath to punish."

Jonah knew this, but he didn't want the Ninevites to know it. So his preaching stopped short at, "In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed.' No if, ands, or buts.

He gave them no choice, no hope. But apparently the Holy Spirit whispered the missing condition to that condemnation to the heart of the King and the people. The King said: "Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold His blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish." Then he and all the people repented with fasting and penance in sackcloth, and God spared them. This was not an exception to God's way of dealing with sinners, but the rule. The rule, whether expressed or only implied is "I will not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live".

The rest of the chapter tells how God turned His attention to Jonah in order to win him over from His childish resentment. Jonah kept on grumbling against the reprieve God gave to Nineveh, and still hoped they would be destroyed. So he sat down outside the city waiting to see what would happen. Here I can do no better than quote the simple account of what followed: (I don't think you ever hear this part read in church.) Ch4 v6ff):

"And when the Lord God provided a gourd plant that grew up over Jonah's head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was very happy over the plant. But the next morning at dawn God sent a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered.. And when the sun rose, God sent a burning east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah's head till he became faint. Then he asked for death, saying, " I would be better off dead than alive."

"But God said to Jonah, "Have you reason to be angry over the plant?" "I have reason to be angry," Jonah answered, "angry enough to die." Then the Lord said, "You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night, and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?" (End of book!)

What a picture this gives us of God's merciful heart! How ready He is to forgive anyone who repents; how he is willing to change his mind at the last minuet even at the risk of appearing foolish and inconsistent; how He is willing to let ignorance be an excuse from gilt; (This is the meaning of the Ninevites not being able to distinguish their right hand from their left.) and how he is concerned even for animals! I hope no one here is still trying to interpret this book of Jonah literally, as if it were a newspaper account of what actually happened. Many parts of the bible are intended to be eyewitness accounts of historical events. St. Luke explicitly makes this claim at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. But there are other ways to teach moral and religious truths. Aesop's fables are a famous example of ancient Greek wisdom. And so the ancient Jewish people also had a rich tradition of story telling, and they used this gift in many places in their scriptures, starting with the teaching on creation in Genesis. And so the introduction to the book of Jonah in the NAB says: "This book is a didactic story with an important theological message." It is not a romance, not a thriller, not a mystery story, but a didactic or teaching story. The story is not important for its own sake. Who cares about the individuals mentioned in it, or the details of time and place? It is the moral teaching behind the scene that counts. There are two lessons.

If you ever find yourself guilty, if God Himself is threatening you with hell, if He has already passed a final sentence on you, like He did for the Ninevites, don't despair! There is only one final sentence, and that is at the moment of death, or at the final judgment. Until then God will repent if you repent. Even though He didn't say so each time, the bottom line is implied in His words to Ezekiel: Ez18:23 "Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? Says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?"

If someone has hurt you, and you have condemned them, and now they have repented and received forgiveness from God, and come asking your forgiveness, you have no choice but to forgive. Otherwise, how could you honestly say the Lord's Prayer: "forgive us as we forgive others."

This does not mean you have to become a doormat for every one to walk over you. Forgiveness means only that you renounce any wall that keeps you from becoming friends. This does not cost you anything. You can say "I want to be your friend, but you still owe me x dollars."

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