“An Outrageous Mercy”
Jonah is one of the funniest books in the Hebrew Bible because of its ironic twists and surprise ending. The joke is on Jonah, a reluctant prophet, and on all the other devout Jews of his day who believed that God hated their enemies as much as they did. Jonah resists the call to go to preach in Nineveh because he (if he got real honest) did not want the Ninevites to repent and avoid destruction.
Most of the story is about Jonah’s attempt to escape God’s call and plan. When his pagan shipmates realize he is running away from Israel’s God, they throw him overboard. An enormous fish swallows him and then delivers him to the shores of Nineveh. What he fears takes place. Though he barely preaches, the Ninevites repent, from the king on down to the animals in the marketplace.
In the final scene of the story, Jonah is sweltering in the hot sun, and God teaches him a lesson about mercy by freely giving him the shade of a broom plant. God then takes it away, and when Jonah complains, God reminds him that the tree was a gift, not something he had earned. It is the same with Israel. God chose them freely. Why should they complain if God freely chooses to do the same thing with everyone else?
The Gospel writers took up the theme of Jonah and applied it to Jesus. He preached God’s gift of salvation not just to the Jews but to pagans as well, not just to the righteous but to sinners as well. An people responded.
Jesus chooses his first disciples in this weekend’s Gospel, all fishermen. The disciples do not choose Jesus; he chooses them. He opens their hearts to God’s gift of love, and to demonstrate God’s overwhelming generosity, Jesus has them take their boats out after a night of catching nothing. Their nets are filled with fish. It is not their doing; it is a gift. The Gospel is gathering widely and broadly.
The scribes and the Pharisees were upset that Jesus befriended sinners. He seemed to be giving God’s love away, too lavishly. This has a way of upsetting things. Sinners should have to suffer some punishment or pay for their sins before God welcomes them back. How unfair it is to good people who have made sacrifices to obey God’s laws if God loves everyone the same!
We hear echoes of this same complaint today. The greatest obstacle to a church of mercy is not from sinners who reject God, but from religious people who reject sinners and cannot imagine being at the same table with them. Holy Communion, they insist, should be only for those who obey all the rules. They are God’s holy remnant. Their virtue entitles them to be ahead of bad people in line. What a surprise to be told that God loves everyone and will go to any lengths to bring home a single lost soul. The real challenge of the Gospel is not to the wayward sons and daughters but to the rest of God’s family: to welcome sinners and love them as God loves them.
We join Pope Francis in that tender outreach. God’s name is Mercy. Jesus told his disciples: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” This is the open gate of the kingdom of heaven, and it must also be the open door of the church and of our hearts.
Thanks for all you do to announce that message of mercy.
A tender week.