"But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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." (Jonah 3:1-2)2
Why is it that when God shows mercy to us we call it "amazing grace" and break into song, but when God shows mercy to those who have hurt us we feel God may be getting a little too soft on sin? "That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning," Jonah explains to God. "Because I knew that the essence of who you are is about grace and mercy and forgiveness, and I really hate it when you forgive people I'm not ready to forgive yet!"
This parable (and I think that is the appropriate way to read it: not to try to imagine a literal prophet living in the belly of a great fish for three days, but with the same kind of lens we use to read the parables of Jesus) almost certainly dates to the post-Exilic period in Israel's history. Israel had to forgive the Babylonians before they could get on with their own lives. This story is about forgiving the enemy, or at least trying to. It's about moving on from a person or experience that has left us hurting very badly. Because until one learns to show mercy even to those undeserving of mercy, they will take up residence in our heads. There is no chance to move on from any tragedy that I can think of without forgiveness.
And that is what these forty days are all about, Charlie Brown: forgiveness. As a pastor I hear people tell me time and again it's the hardest part of the gospel for them. For me, too. But it also takes us right to the very heart of the gospel; which no one ever said would be easy.
Which is harder for you: to accept the fact that you are forgiven, or to forgive others as you have been forgiven? I suspect it depends on a variety of circumstances. In any event, both Testaments are clear: God is steadfast, merciful, and forgiving - to us, to our friends and family, and even to our enemies. It is who God is. Even more than that: we are called to be merciful, as God is merciful. (With God's help!)
These next forty days give us a chance to make a start.
NB: This post was written for the Lenten Meditations at St. Francis Church and is re-posted here. For readers of this blog who may be interested in daily reflections offered by the people of the parish I serve over the course of the next forty days, check out: Lenten Meditations 2011