The Problem with God's Justice: it isn't ours | A Reflection on Jonah 4
A sermon prepared for a Homiletics course at Virginia Theological Seminary on the final chapter of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 4)
In today’s reading, the Book of Jonah meets an appropriately ironic and dramatic end. After finally making his way to Ninevah and preaching God’s word to it, a somewhat reluctant prophet until the end, Jonah watches as God casts judgment on that great and wicked city.
And, God does judge Nineveh; but, God acquits. Jonah, the vessel of God’s redeeming Word, stands looking on, one more witness to the Truth: God’s mercy is just. And God’s justice is mercy. And this is Good News. For every one. No exceptions.
Jonah knows this truth in his bones, feels this truth intimately. He professes this truth as the very reason he never wanted to go to Ninevah in the first place: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning! For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
God’s just mercy did not surprise Jonah. In fact, the very certainty of its form and function stirred something ugly up within him.
Something dark and something deep rose to the surface. Something that did not send him running to the belly of a boat or find him desperately praying in the belly of a great fish. Something that did not seek to follow God, however reluctantly, into the belly of a great city. But, instead something that had Jonah setting up front row seats out in the open to witness a hoped for destruction of God’s own people.
Tell me that you haven’t been there, in that front row seat, and I’ll ask you to look again. To dig deeper. To be a bit more honest. Who among us hasn’t longed in some way for retribution? Hasn’t hoped that our adversaries would get their just desserts? Hasn’t felt the kindling of a far cry from love in our bellies and seen it surface in ugly ways? Of course we have.
And, here Jonah sits, the kindling of a far cry from love in his belly, as he takes his front row seat to “see what’ll happen.”
There is little doubt that Jonah had good cause to be both angry with and to fear Ninevah, God himself acknowledged the wickedness of that place. And, Jonah wanted justice. And, you know, I get that. He wanted that kind of justice that makes you feel like there is something fair about the world. Something right. Something orderly and clear.
For me, its the type of justice that acknowledges that there are good people and bad people. That puts people like James Cone and Pope Francis and Mr. Rogers and Martin Luther King Jr. in fundamentally different categories than people like Dylan Roof and Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and the man who murdered my friend’s beautiful baby, Millie. Its a justice that is clean and clear and wholly directed by my own sensibilities and understandings of this world of ours. It’s that kind of justice. We all know it. We all want it.
And, here Jonah sits, waiting for that type of justice, even though he knows its not coming. God’s will be done now. Not Jonah’s. And this will, God’s will, drives Jonah to a desperate prayer. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, he says; for I knew . . . And, now, O’Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
This seems awfully dramatic. But, what if what’s happening here is not just Jonah being a big fat cry baby, but is actually Jonah speaking truth out of his own hurt, his own grief. Consider this, if Jonah has good reason to fear and to be angry with Ninevah, and we’ve already decided he must, than to pass through its streets unharmed, to be delivered from that wicked belly unscathed, must have been an enormous emotional task.
To come face to face with someone or something that has oppressed you, fought against you, sought to end your life or the lives of those whom you love and maybe even been successful- this is not for the faint of heart. This leaves its mark.
Friends, what is hurt, what is grief, what is brokenness if it is not walking through the streets of the unknown and the unfriendly without knowledge of who you are now or where you will go from here? Certainly this applies to our friend Jonah.
And social scientists tell us what we already know in our bones because we’ve seen it and experienced it for ourselves: this type of hurt, of grief, of brokenness can lead to us to be vindictive and abusive. Can lead us to become the abusers, the oppressors, the wrong doers. It can lead us to cry for a kind of retribution that will never truly set things right or make things whole. But, let us also acknowledge friends that this type of hurt, of grief, of brokenness also stands as a source of connectedness between us.
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama operates at this fulcrum between society’s retribution lust and the failure of the criminal justice system to provide any sort of true balm for our need, he writes, “We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways my clients suffer and have caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.”
Jonah cries out that is is better for him to die than to live, and you’ve got to wonder if Jonah is on to something. Because, if we truly want to participate in God’s justice, we’ve got to let go of the love of our own. We have to be willing to put to rest that within us that rebels against the truth of shared brokenness. That rebels against a narrative of belovedness of all. That rebels against the reconciling work of God’s just mercy.
Yes, Jonah has something quite right here. Because, there is something within him that must die if Jonah is to get on board with the type of justice that God offers. If Jonah is to ever accept the mercy extended to him by God, Jonah must be willing to be made whole. And this, this being made whole, necessarily involves acknowledging his connection with Ninevah and its peoples. It necessarily involves the edict Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.
Being broken makes us human. Our brokenness looks different and we come by it in different ways and it is certainly not always equivalent. But, we are all broken. We have this in common, it is a shared source and vital part of our own search for meaning and for healing. It calls us in equal parts to retribution and to reconciliation. So, in the words of Stevenson, “We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity."
Friends, let us always strive to witness to the Truth: God’s mercy is just. And God’s justice is mercy. And this is Good News. For every one. No exceptions.
Quotes above taken from: Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 289. [Read this book! Immediately!]
Image found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html.