Abraham Heschel once wrote, “No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment.”
What we find in Jonah 3 is the redemptive grace that God brings instead of the proclaimed judgment.
Indeed, I think we need to see grace as the normative action and desire of God.
When Jonah gets delivered from the whale, there is no talk of retribution, no mention of penance, no call for sacrifice, no voiding of Jonah’s call, or any other sort of pronouncement on Jonah’s life.
But a sort of subtle, “Let’s get back to work Jonah.”
God’s grace covers Jonah’s sins and serve as a recalling and rededication to his mission, to preach restoration and hope to the people of Nineveh.
Jonah’s pronouncement to the people of Nineveh is one of an ‘overturning’ that will happen in forty days.
But there are two ways to hear this call.
One, in the negative, is judgment and destruction. It’s what we often think of when we hear Jonah’s message.
But there is also a positive aspect, something like, ‘turning over a new leaf.’ In line with the rest of God’s prophets, Jonah’s message is not so much about death and destruction as it is about a way to find new life in doing things God’s way.
Notice what the king of Nineveh says needs to happen. He calls for repentance in two areas: immorality (injustice) and violence. Marketplace immorality happens easily, you weight the scales, you stretch the limits, you push the boundaries, and they you explain it away as something either unimportant or misunderstood.
Top paid professional athletes take performance enhancing drugs, and then explain it as a method to ‘help the team’ because if they aren’t at their best, then neither is the team.
The call for justice is a recognition that they have neglected the plight of the poor. The struggling in their midst have been ignored while they have stretched the boundaries of fair prices in their own favor.
Jonah’s call to ‘turn over a new leaf’ is a cry for the preeminent world power of the day to live honestly in their dealings with others, and to take special care of the poor and needy.
The second call for repentance is for that of violence. The people of Nineveh have not only skewed things in their favor, and ignored the poor, they have done so through violence. True repentance and faithful living requires peaceful relationships with those around us.
Jonah’s call to ‘turn over a new leaf’ is also a cry for the preeminent world power of the day to be a people and nation of peace, working to restore equity and shalom to everyone.
I think anyone who has really encountered and experienced the God of the Bible gets several things: the need for justice, the need for shalom, and the overwhelming and abundant grace that covers all of humanity.
Ask David the adulterer who is called a man after God’s own heart.
Or Peter, who denied Jesus three times and yet became the rock of the early church.
Or Paul, who turned from church killer to church planter.
There’s also John, who went from one called ‘The Thunder’ to one called ‘The beloved.’
Matthew the tax collector went from despised and hated traitor, to faithful disciple.
Both Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman experienced grace in ways that removed their social stigma and they were early faithful followers.
Any experience of grace in our lives is never complete if it isn’t extended to others. In Jonah’s recalling we see not only the extension of it to himself, but his commissioning to go and give that to others, the fresh opportunity that in God, there is the ability to ‘turn over a new leaf’ and find joy and happiness in the grace of God.