Is there anyone you find it hard to forgive, because they’ve hurt you deeply and God seems to have let them get away with it? This morning we’re wrestling with two themes that run through the entire Bible, how God is a compassionate God and how God is a just God. Both compassion and justice are rooted in God’s love. It’s easy to see how compassion is rooted in love, but justice is also rooted in love; both for the one being hurt, but also for the one doing the oppressing because justice is about drawing them back to God and God’s will for their lives and for the society at large. Justice is meant to transform hearts.
Jonah preaches destruction to the people of Nineveh and Nineveh, led by their king, repents and God shows them grace and compassion. Now we see Jonah’s reaction to God’s grace, and while it’s easy to condemn Jonah for being so angry over God’s grace, yet I get it. It feels so wrong when those who do something horrible and evil are shown mercy and seem to walk away without any sort of consequences for the brokenness they’ve caused, even if they have said “sorry.”
Jonah prays to the Lord, basically challenging God, I told you so, “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.” Jonah’s praying scripture, Exodus 34, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” But Jonah fails to pray the second part of this passage, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Our God is a God of both compassion and justice.
We see this especially in Jesus, who on Palm Sunday, looks down on the city of Jerusalem and cries for the people there, the same people who less that a week later will unjustly crucify him. Jesus, even while weeping over the people, takes their injustice and sins on himself, and pays the penalty for our sin on the cross because God is a just God and there needs to be justice done for sin and evil. In Jesus, compassion and justice come together and brings us new life, new beginnings for those who accept Jesus. We are connected to Jesus in his resurrection.
The Lord comes back to Jonah and asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” God intends for the answer to be “No,” because who can tell God what he should or should not do, yet Jonah’s unspoken answer is, “For sure it’s right to be angry, and you should be too because these people you’re showing mercy to are evil and hurt your people!” Jonah gives God a chance to carry through on his judgment of Nineveh by camping out east of Nineveh to watch God destroy them like he had promised. I get it. I’ve walked with way too many people who’ve been hurt deeply, so deeply it completely changed their lives, changed who they are, and then watched their abuser walk away free with a slap on their wrist, or even worse, with no consequences at all. Movements like #metoo or #churchtoo are so powerful, because they speak to a lack of justice, a failure for society to take into consideration the one who has been hurt. Hurt people need to see some form of justice done in order to find some healing in themselves. To be honest, wouldn’t it give you a tiny bit of pleasure to see justice done to Nineveh?
God shows Jonah a little grace by providing a plant to give Jonah a little shade. I always think of Jonah as being a grumpy old guy, but this plant actually makes him very happy, maybe even bringing a smile to his face, but that joy is short lived as the Lord then sends a worm to eat away at the plant and it dies, leaving Jonah unprotected again from the beating sun. God seems to have a bit of an in-your-face sense of humour here, setting Jonah up for disappointment. Jonah’s response is, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” This is the second time that as soon as something doesn’t go his way, Jonah’s response is, “Let me die, life isn’t worth living if I don’t get what I want.” Not only won’t God show justice to Nineveh and destroy the, now he takes away his compassion from Jonah, at least this is how Jonah experiences God’s action.
God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah doubles down on his whine with, “It is. And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Think about this, Jonah cares more about a plant that he didn’t plant, water or take care of over living breathing people, including children. God now asks Jonah, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” They may be enemies of Israel, but they are still people, all who are also created in the image of God, even if they don’t know it, this is what God means when he says they don’t know their right hand from the left; they’re ignorant about who he is.
Israel hears this story and challenge, and it’s a story of hope because God is a compassionate God, but also a just God who demands that they turn back to him. Israel is not as different from Nineveh as they claim; the rich and powerful in Israel also oppress the poor, the widows and those who were vulnerable, and God sends prophet after prophet to keep calling them back to him. The reality is that we so often hurt people because we go through life with a me-first attitude that comes so naturally. How many people are waiting for us to experience justice for the things we’ve done?
The story ends here with no answer from Jonah. I wonder how long he sits there waiting for Nineveh’s destruction before heading home. We’re still left with this question of how does compassion and grace fit together. God is complex, we don’t easily understand who he is. Sometimes he blesses the believer and punishes the pagans and other times he blesses the pagans and punishes the believers. Sometimes the punishment for injustice is quick and harsh, other times there’s unexpected grace. God’s not just a God of wrath or love, but as one woman in a Tim Keller Bible study notes, he’s both!
Jesus calls us into a deep and difficult faith. Hear who he calls us to be in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is easy to teach and say; it’s so hard to live out.
Jonah couldn’t, many people I’ve walked with who have been deeply hurt find it extremely difficult to live this out as well. I find it hard to tell the person who has been hurt to work on forgiving, it seems wrong to put that on the victim, and yet in forgiving, there is healing and we become more like Jesus in doing so. This is why Jesus calls those of us "who are weary and burdened, to come to him, and I will give you rest. take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your sols. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." The reality is that we can’t forgive in our own strength, we can't find healing in ourselves, we need the help of the Holy Spirit to forgive and show grace to those who’ve hurt us deeply. It’s also important that while we practice forgiveness, we also hold others accountable for their actions, for it’s not love to let people get away with hurting others, it is love to make sure they experience the consequences of their actions, but with the goal that they might be transformed, that their character becomes shaped by Jesus as they learn to love instead of hurt.
This is about our character, about who Jesus is shaping us to be. We find healing and rest in Jesus and as we find healing, Jesus helps us to forgive, even as we hold others accountable for who they are and what they’ve done. God will also hold them accountable for their actions. Compassion and justice can come together, but in a messy world, it can only be done through Jesus.