Yesterday in church, this was our Old Testament reading:
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.That passage has always convinced me that Jonah was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He's perfectly willing for 120,000 people to die to confirm his own worldview that he is righteous and they are sinners, so willing in fact that he becomes angry when they repent and God saves them.
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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Yesterday as these verses were read in church, I was struck by the realization that many Christians are still like this. Those who are quick to gleefully announce that other people are going to hell for their beliefs or their actions strike me as Jonahs of the 21st century. We've all heard them: Catholic priests who deny communion to politicians who differ from the church's stand on abortion, the long-haired man in England who interrupted a church service to shout at Bishop Gene Robinson that he was going to hell for his homosexuality, the preachers in America who announced that New Orleans deserved the hurricane or that America deserved the 9/11 attack because of sin.
Sometimes I wonder just what God these people worship. I've already written about how I believe that contemporary American Christianity's obsession with homosexuality and abortion is a case of misplaced priorities (My Take on Biblical Priorities), so I won't reiterate that viewpoint here. Instead, I have a single question about those who preach hellfire and damnation with such enthusiasm:
Where is the grace and the love?
My understanding of Scripture is that each of us is flawed and undeserving of heaven, but that God offers it freely as a gift because of love. And the Jesus I love is the one who said, "Let him who is without sin be the one to cast the first stone."
The irony in that story is that Jesus himself met the requirement of being sinless, yet he did not raise a hand against the adulterous woman. No, he gave her hope for her future and sent her on her way.
I'm not saying that we have to be mamby pamby and say, "Whatever you think is ok is all right to believe." There is nothing wrong with having a dialogue and saying respectfully, "My take on that issue is different. Here is what I believe and why . . ." The keys are respect, openness, and humility. The error lies in presuming to speak for God and in pronouncing the condemnation of another human being. I don't believe God ever calls us to do that.
One of Jesus' bitterest denunciations is reserved for religious leaders and experts in Biblical law because they piled burdens on the people and did not lift them, and they kept the smallest details of the commandments but did not have love or justice. (See Luke 11.) And by justice, Christ did not mean pronouncing sentence on sin. He meant practicing social justice, alleviating poverty, and reducing inequalities.
I know that I am not perfect in this regard. At times, I have commented in anger about the actions of others. But at my best, I do not want to be a Jonah, perpetuating the divisions in Christianity or promoting an image of God as a gleeful hanging judge.
Lord, help me not to spread condemnation or hatred. Instead, let my life be guided by the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.