Feb 25, 2015

God's mercy and ours



Jonah 3: 1-10


Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying,
2 "Arise, go to Nin'eveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
3 So Jonah arose and went to Nin'eveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nin'eveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he cried, "Yet forty days, and Nin'eveh shall be overthrown!"
5 And the people of Nin'eveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
6 Then tidings reached the king of Nin'eveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
7 And he made proclamation and published through Nin'eveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water,
8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands.
9 Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?"
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

How far does the mercy and forgiveness of God really go? How fair and just is it really to forgive the hardest of criminals and what exactly is proper justice for crimes committed?  A life for a life? 

Such questions haunt our society particularly around how to deal with the truly guilty.  The destruction or threat to innocent life is a far different matter than how to deal with the guilty.  The innocent are guilty of no offense but those who have committed serious crimes such as murder or simply those who lead an obstinate life in sin and scandal, what do they deserve?  What if they repent and turn away from their evil? Do we simply turn the other cheek and pretend that no damage has been done or do we truly forgive them and move on? Such questions remain controversial and fodder for discussion.  In the end what would God say about such issues?

The above reading from the book of Jonah offers us an answer of how the divine considers justice and mercy.  In the face of such evil, when faced with the repentance of the Ninevites, notoriously a sinful city and population, God "repented of the evil which he said he would do to them." But, is that fair considering a sinfulness so grevious that God planned to destroy the entire city? 

What does God repent of?  He changes his mind and decides that he will not destroy the city, or "overthrow" it.  The passage does not refer to the individuals living in the city but rather makes a reference to the collective group of citizens as a whole.  In other words, God spares the city due to the sincere repentance of the King and all the citizens, even the animals used for sacrifice repented symbolically.  God offers another chance for his desire that we turn away from evil and direct our hearts to God and to life itself is so great that when the moment of sincere repentance comes, God relents.

That's it?  That's all it takes?  Seems so but remember Jesus' words to the woman caught in the act of adultery.  Rather than condemn her as so many were ready to stone her, Jesus with compassion did not condemn but reminded her, "Go, and sin no more."  Forgiveness is offered but we also have a responsibility to continue then in the new life God offers us.  To avoid sin and embrace his new way.

It has been sarcastically said about us Catholics, "You can sin on Friday night, then simply go to confession on Saturday and it's all ok!"  Not exactly.  Yes, we can go to confession and be forgiven if we recognize the error of our ways and not deliberately re-enact another "Friday night." 

God extends his mercy to us over and over again, and thank God he does, but reconciliation comes with a bit of a price tag - are we sincere about what we ask God for?  When we express sorrow, what have we done to avoid the same sin again?  Are we actively involved in some sort of plan to avoid sinfulness?

Our pursuit of prayer, our works of charity towards others, our personal sacrifice and self- discipline are brought before us this season of Lent.  These are time tested and ancient ways that provide us the strength and perspective not only to know our sin but to approach this God of mercy who desires that we live well as he has shown us. 

Finally, how did Jonah react to God's change of mind?  He was furious!  Jonah agreed to follow God's call not because he hoped the Ninevites would repent.  He wanted to prove a point to God that they never would.  They're so far gone that God would see their obstinacy and never turn away from sin while Jonah could gloat with pride that his point was correct. 

Not so - God can never be outdone and Jonah learned a crucial lesson about the nature of God's heart and his merciful desire that all be saved.  We too must lean the same and Lent provides us with rich examples.

Am I like Jonah before God?  While we never really know what is in a person's heart and mind to know that if the most corrupt of individuals turns away from their path towards faith and does good God takes them back.  Is that fair?  Is that justice? 

This Lent reminds us all that we are sinners but the mercy of God challenges our human perception to be more God-like indeed.