Take Courage in God's Mercy

Take Courage in God's Mercy

Homily for Wednesday in the First Week in Lent

February 21, 2024

Take Courage in God's Mercy

Homily for Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Wednesday in the First Week in Lent
Luke 11:29-32

The Book of the Prophet Jonah wields an influence greater than its four brief chapters might suggest.  Who hasn’t heard of Jonah and his three days in the belly of the whale?  Aside from the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, the Book of the Prophet Jonah is notable for its unusual take on several weighty theological matters.  For example, in the opening chapter, during the fierce storm when the sailors were afraid, the author seems to question Hebrew monotheism:

Then the sailors were afraid, and each cried to his god… Jonah, meanwhile…was fast asleep…  The captain came and said to Jonah, “What are you doing…?  Getup; call on your god.  Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish. (1:5-6)

Or again, as we heard in today’s passage, the author portrays God as sending a prophet not to the Hebrews but to the Assyrians, the people of Nineveh, who were the “Evil Empire”of their day:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh,that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I shall tell you.”

And not only does God send the Assyrians a prophet, but God heeds the Assyrians’ prayers(!):

When God saw [how they covered themselves in sackcloth and sat in ashes and “prayed mightily to God,” and] how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

And lastly, note how “God changed his mind.”  In contrast to a God who is immutable and unmoved – a God that is expressed, for example, in the hymn, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” (from verse 3):  

We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish but naught changeth thee.

… in contrast to a God that“naught changeth,” the God in Jonah “changed his mind.”

Given that scholars believe Jonah was written to be a not-so-subtle piece of resistance to the draconian policies within an era of Israel’s priesthood, it comes as no surprise that Jonah would express a different take on theological matters.  Though set in the time of the Assyrian empire,scholars believe Jonah actually was written much later, sometime in the late 5thand early 4th century, to counter the emphasis on Hebrew racial purity during the time of the priest Ezra.  Ezra (as you may recall) was the priest who insisted that the Israelites sever from and send away any wives who may have been foreign-born (Ezra, ch 10).  The book of Ruth (who was the Moabite woman who married Boaz, a man of Judah) [the Book of Ruth] likewise it thought to have been part of this “resistance” to Ezra’s attempt to establish Hebrew racial purity.  

Among the many things I like about the Book of the Prophet Jonah is that the author imagines not only that God is capable of change, but it imagines that even the Assyrians, the most brutal enemies in Israel’s history, were capable of change.  If even the Assyrians are capable of hearing God’s word and finding a right relationship with God, then, so must I – so must we – be capable of responding to God’s word and finding a right relationship with God.  

This Lent I invite us to take courage from the Book of Jonah, who communicates to us the abundant and unbounded mercy of God for all, and who believes that all have the capacity to grow and to change and to enter even more closely into right relationship with God.  



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