Our first scripture is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Jonah.
The Book of Jonah is a comedy, I know that sounds strange, as many might think thank the content of the Bible is at all times grave and most of the time tragic, but the Book of Jonah was written to delight and by delighting soften the impact of its meaning- which was demanding that those who heard it change their minds about matters of great importance.
Jonah is of all the Old Testament prophets the most successful and the most reluctant. Called by God to warn the enemies of Israel, the Ninevites, to repent of their sins or face the fury of God’s wrath, Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission. And so when God tells him to go to the city of Ninevah, he flees in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go.
This provokes God to intervene and deliver the prophet to his appointed destination by employing the oddest and most uncomfortable means possible.
Once in the city, Jonah scarcely utters his word of warning to the people and they all repent- all the cities inhabitants (including the animals!) seek the forgiveness of God.
At this, one would think that Jonah would be a happy man, but he is not. It turns out that he tried to evade his mission in hope that God would have to destroy the Ninevites- after all, they were the enemies of the Israelites and were responsible for terrible crimes against them. Jonah was angry and disappointed that God did not conform to his standards of justice, that God was merciful and willing to forgive what in Jonah’s estimation, indeed what in most people’s estimation, should be unforgiveable.
You might ask what is so hard about the lesson that God is merciful in ways that exceed our expectations. But anyone who has truly been hurt by someone might understand Jonah’s protests. It also might help to understand that the Ninevites in the story are the Assyrians of actual, ancient history. The Assyrian Empire invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in the year 725 BC, and did so with such cruelty and ferocity that 10 of the twelve tribes of the Israelites were destroyed forever, disappearing from history. This makes the ancient Assyrians guilty of what we call genocide.
The Book of Jonah is suggesting that God is willing to forgive the Assyrians for what they had done, if they should seek his mercy and repent.
All this is meant to invoke our memory of the cross of Christ, which is not, as some have made it, simply the death of a good man, who is a victim of political circumstances. The cross of Christ reveals the wickedness that lurks within the human condition, a wickedness so insidious that God would come to us in Christ and offer us his friendship and we in turn, fearing how friendship with God would change our lives, would conspire to have him tortured and killed. And do not protest that you would never do such a thing. We all find ourselves in the revelation of Christ’s cross shouting out to crucify him, or worse, giving consent through our silence.
What does the cross reveal that we deserve from God? Surely not his forgiveness. Surely not his mercy. In fact, that the potential in each of us to refuse God is in all of us, a refusal we see in all the cruelty that is so endemic to our condition, a cruelty we see in the cross, would justice not be served in God bringing the human project to an end?
But in the wake of the cross God reveals the greatest of all possible second chances. He forgives. He is merciful. And his forgiveness, his mercy is undeserved. What he offers to us he insists that we offer to others. He decides, contrary to our narrow conception of justice, not to give us what we deserve, but what we need the most.
This revelation of God’s mercy should be as surprising and as off putting to us as it was to Jonah, and to the disciples of the Lord Jesus after his cross.
The willingness to forgive, even when, especially when, such forgiveness is undeserved, is also one of the characteristics that should set the Christian apart from the rest of the world. The Christians believes that what God in Christ gives to us is meant to be given by us to others- and forgiveness is God in Christ’s greatest gift.
Forgiveness is not just for the Christian an ideal, but a Sacrament of the Church, through which we repent, and seek from God the gift of another chance. Within this Sacrament of Reconciliation we receive God in Christ’s forgiveness in a word that is as real as the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. God wants us to receive this word of forgiveness so that we can offer it to others. That so few desire to hear his word of forgiveness can clearly be correlated to the cruelty, indifference, and pain-filled unwillingness to forgive that afflicts our culture. We cannot offer to others what we ourselves refuse to receive.
The lack of desire to receive God’s word of forgiveness in his Sacrament of Reconciliation also might indicate that many have become presumptuous in regards to God’s mercy, thinking it as something that was deserved and is absolutely guaranteed.
Saint Paul’s insights in the excerpt you heard today from his first letter to the Corinthians really wants to set us straight in regards to any kind of presumption we might be entertaining concerning the mercy of God. The Gospel is clear that God’s mercy can only happen to us if there is repentance, and with repentance comes the desire to live differently. Thus in no way can the revelation of God’s mercy be used as an affirmation of our status quo and further, we can refuse God’s mercy and by our own willfulness and subvert it’s power to save us.
Thus, the mercy of God cannot be employed by us in the way one uses a “get out of jail free” card in the game of monopoly. God’s mercy is an opportunity, and we can resist that opportunity, even lose it. God in Christ offers his mercy, but do we want it? And if we accept it, are we willing to change our lives so that the mercy we have received can become mercy for others?
The decision to repent and accept God’s mercy presses upon us with great urgency- St. Paul insists that we understand this and also that we understand God’s mercy is an opportunity that we can miss.
If we take the mercy of God seriously we know that the stakes are very high in terms of what God is offering and what happens to us both if we accept it, but also if we refuse his gift.
Being a Christian is not like being Irish or being a Democrat. Being a Christian is not a matter of matriculating through faith themed institutions or schools or belonging to a faith-based club. Being a Christian means that you are someone who has accepted the call of Jesus Christ as a call from God himself- and his call is to repent, to change, to live differently. Christ doesn’t just “accept us as we are” for that would truly be a terrible thing. Christ gives us an opportunity, a possibility to change that has the power to make us new.
The reality of being a Christian is displayed dramatically in today’s Gospel, in which the first disciples called by Christ respond by leaving the means of their livelihood and their families behind so as to follow Christ. We are meant to be impressed by their sense of daring and willingness to take a life-changing risk.
If you are not impressed, you are missing the point of the story.
Today’s Gospel is also God’s answer to our question as to what he wants from us and where meaning and purpose for our life will be found. Only when we are able to “drop our nets” that is, give our lives over to Christ, placing ourselves at his service, will we ever know the secret for which we were born.
We may not be asked by Christ to quit our jobs or leave our families so as to follow him (but some of us will!), but the same level of commitment manifested by the disciples in today’s Gospel is expected of every Christian. Being a Christian means that your life belongs to Jesus Christ and that this is evident in what you say and in what you do. To be a Christian means that your life is given over to Christ’s will, to his purposes- it is not about getting what you want from God, it is about giving your life over to God.
God in Christ gives his life for you. Are you willing to give your life to him?