Drop the Net
How many chances do you think you deserve? How many chances do you get to make things right? The answer is, of course, that it depends on the topic. If you are playing a video game, you can usually restart from wherever you died – of course that’s after you’ve already expended numerous lives.
If you are standing before a judge, it may depend on your prior record, or the judge’s temperament, or how severely you broke the law. In some cases, there are clear racial biases in sentencing. Still, I have to believe that most judges are fair.
In fact, one of my most memorable experiences actually happened in a courtroom. This particular judge dispensed wisdom and compassion along with appropriate sentencing. In one case, he told an enlisted man that – while he respected the man’s desire to serve – driving his sport bike 120mph on the shoulder of the highway to avoid traffic was not a choice that will help him advance in a military career.
With another man, he reflected on the difficulty of parenting. As he reflected on this man’s choice to turn a complaint over his son’s behavior into his physical assault on the principle, the Judge said, “Sometimes we have to realize that our children’s problems are a reflection of our own limitations.” There is some true wisdom in that, even though we are all responsible for our own actions.
The sins of the parents do roll down, but that doesn’t mean that we’re simply stuck in a loop of gloom and doom, at least it doesn’t have to. Some say that Jonah was written to deal with just this kind of thing. For those Israelites in captivity in Assyria, they wanted to know how long they would be punished. And not only that, they were seeing much worse behavior from their captors than they ever thought of. How could God be punishing them and not the Assyrians?
So, in walks Jonah. Now, most scholars believe that Jonah may have been a real person, but this story is actually a brilliant piece of satire. All the other prophets are talking about Israel and Judah, and here comes God, sending Jonah to Nineveh – the capitol of Assyria. This would be like stomping into the stronghold of the Islamic State and saying, “You are so gonna’ get it from God!” and them saying, “Wait. You’re totally right. Maybe if we repent God will change God’s mind.”
For those that first heard or read these words, they would’ve gotten the point that it is not God’s character to act out of malice, even though it is ours. It is God’s character to act out of compassion. That’s actually why Jonah did not want to go. These were people that had caused untold suffering. He did not want to go because he knew it was God’s ultimate desire to forgive even those who didn’t know “their right hand from their left” when it comes to loving God.
I wonder if another part of this grand satirical display of grace is not only to say, “My character is to forgive all who turn from sin.” but also, “What if you would try to love them the way that I do.” That’s the reality twisting gut check that I’m struggling with from this passage.
God is using the enemy of the state – the ones who threaten all identity and meaning – to demonstrate a new reality that is defined by the opportunity to love and forgive. Now, the opportunity to forgive means that the opportunity to hurt is still part of the puzzle, just like the opportunity to love means that the opportunity to disregard is still on the table. You see hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is apathy. It’s the dehumanizing distance that allows us to feel ok about another’s pain.
The thing is, this new reality is the one that God has been hinting about since the first brother killed the first brother, and it’s the same one that Jesus announced when he said, “Repent! The Kingdom has come near!” And it’s the same one that Paul was expecting when he told the believers in Corinth that they shouldn’t worry about marriage or loss or possessions. “For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Truly, the present form of this world is always passing away. We often act like what we have or what we do is all that will ever be – or should ever be – but what is common now was unheard of 10 years ago and will be laughable in another 10 years. And while Paul was expecting a literal return of Jesus – which we may yet see – what we find consistently witnessed in scripture is that God wants us to treat each other the way God treats us.
Certainly, we are called to repent from our sins in order to do this. Certainly, we are called to challenge the systems that keep us from seeing the humanity in one another (You may even notice that Jonah’s words include the animals and all of creation in that). Certainly, we have to begin by following the one who calls us to fish for people that might need to know that they are not alone; that they, too, are valued and valuable; that there is someone worth following even though it is a path that leads to the cross.
The revelation – the epiphany – that we are offered this day is that Jesus calls all of us into discipleship. He calls all of us to repent and to invite others to be a part of this dance that still goes on. For we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. We are the representation of Christ and of the Kingdom he proclaimed. In all of our perfect imperfections we are yet called as fishers of people to – in the words of the Book of Order ( – a new openness to God’s mission in the world.