Day 34: True Forgiveness
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
We write these things, dear friends, not only to admonish you but also to remind ourselves. For we are in the same arena and the same contest awaits us. Therefore let us abandon empty and futile thoughts and let us conform to the glorious and holy rule of our tradition; indeed, let us note what is good and what is pleasing and what is acceptable in the sight of the one who made us. Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ and understand how precious it is to his Father, because being poured out for our salvation, it won for the whole world the grace of repentance. Let us review all the generations in turn and learn that from generation to generation the Master has given an opportunity for repentance to those who desire to turn to him…Jonah preached destruction to the people of Nineveh, but those who repented of their sins made atonement to God by their prayers and received salvation, even though they [were] alienated from God.[i]
Clement (d. 99), Bishop of Rome
Heavenly Father, we ask you graciously to hear our prayer. Grant that we, to whom you have given a hearty desire to pray, may ever be defended by your mighty power, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Old Testament Lesson
A fourth-century BC writer described Nineveh’s walls as being about fifty-five miles in circumference.[ii] The city was so large that it took three days to walk through it. Nineveh was likely the hub of the pagan system in the ancient Near East. This was the last place one would expect to find repentance. Jonah hated this mission so much that he tried to get out of it. In the story that follows, a newly-compliant Jonah travels to Nineveh at God’s behest. The result of Jonah’s preaching is simply miraculous. The entire city turns and repents. The references to forty days, to threatened punishment, to repentance and to salvation are all distinctly Lenten themes. Christians have usually read this story as a paradigmatic example of God’s grace at work among those who come to recognize their wickedness and repent. The tradition also frequently interprets Jonah as a precursor of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation not only to Israel, but to the pagan world as well.
1Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Rise up, walk to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell to you.” 3So Jonah arose and walked to Nineveh, just as the LORD had said. Now Nineveh was a huge city before God, about a three days’ walk. 4Then Jonah started to enter the city, and after a full day’s walk, he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5So the people of Nineveh believed in God and proclaimed a fast. From the greatest to the smallest, they put on sackcloth.
6Now when the report reached the King of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, took off his mantle, put on sackcloth and sat upon ashes. 7Then he issued a proclamation that said, “In Nineveh by the judgment of the King and his nobles, ‘No man, beast, cattle or sheep shall taste anything. They shall not eat or even drink water. 8Every man and beast must cover himself with sackcloth and must cry out to almighty God. Everyone must turn from his wicked way of life and from the violence that he perpetrates.’ 9Who knows, perhaps God will relent, show compassion and turn from His burning anger that we might not perish.” 10When God saw their acts and that they had turned from their wicked way of life, God relented from the calamity that He promised to bring against them and did not carry it out.
New Testament Lesson
Jesus is once again in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles, this time on the last day of the Feast. Whereas in last Saturday’s reading, Jesus was emphasizing his status as the “light of the world,” now he emphasizes his intention to give “living water.” Jesus is reinterpreting the imagery of Zechariah 14.8 and the promise that living waters would flow out from Jerusalem, a theme heavily emphasized at the Feast.[iii] Jesus reinterprets this promise of living water as an interior one, referring to the coming of the Spirit that transforms believers from within. When Jesus references the OT Scriptures, He probably has in mind the story when Moses strikes the rock and water gushes out (Num 20). As we have seen, St. Paul picks up the imagery of the rock and saw it as connected to Christ (1 Cor 10.1-4). Hence Jesus is saying that an intimate relationship with Him is possible, even after he departs from the earth, because He will send the Holy Spirit to believers in His stead.
32Then the Pharisees heard the crowd murmuring these things about Jesus, so the High Priests and the Pharisees sent the temple police to arrest Him. 33Jesus said, “Yet a little while longer I am with you and then I am going to the one who sent me. 34You will seek me but not find me, for where I am you aren’t able to come.” 35Then the Jews said to themselves, “Where is He about to go that we won’t find Him? He’s not about to go into the diaspora among the Greeks to teach them, is He? 36What does this saying mean when He said, ‘You will seek me and not find me for where I am you are not able to come’”?
37And on the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus came in and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38He who believes in me, as the Scripture says, ‘From within his inner being will flow rivers of living water.’” 39Now Jesus said this concerning the Spirit that those who believed in Him were about to receive, for the Spirit hadn’t yet come since Jesus wasn’t yet glorified.
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever had a time when you simply realized in a flash that you were wrong about something? What caused you to turn and change your mind?
- What do you make of present-day religious leaders who “speak for God,” confidently asserting (for example) that natural disasters are God’s judgment for sin? What should our reaction be to such events? Isn’t this similar to what Jonah did?
- Why do people keep misunderstanding Jesus? Why is his message of non-violence, peace and harmony so unwelcome even among those who call themselves Christians?
- Do you sense the Spirit at work in you? How have you changed over the last year? Are you hung up on the same things you’ve always struggled with or are there signs of progress that you can point to in your spiritual life?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Forgiveness is surprising. In the ancient world, Nineveh was about the last place anyone would have expected redemption to come and the last place anyone would have expected to repent. Nineveh, which was located by the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq, would have been seen as unspeakably wicked and allied against God.[iv] The prophet Zephaniah describes it like this: “[God] will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry wasteland like the desert” (Zeph 2.13). No Jew had any fondness for Nineveh.
The reason for this strong antipathy is that Nineveh had been allied against God for a long time. The city was a product of the same rebellious family (the descendants of Ham and Nimrod) that produced Babel with its famous tower (Gen 10.11-12). In Jonah’s day, it was the center of the yet-to-be ascendant Assyrian Empire, an empire that in the seventh century BC would invade Judah and fight against King Hezekiah (2 Ki 19.36).[v]
Yet God had other plans for Nineveh. Although Jonah wanted no part of this mission at first, he eventually went to the city at God’s behest and the city surprisingly repented at his preaching. We are not told what caused their change of heart specifically, only that threatened annihilation and judgment from God somehow got their attention. But, even here, the details are surprising. As the narrator describes it, Jonah’s preaching did not include God’s name, nor did it specifically include a call to repentance.[vi] They repented anyway.
Thus, even though the prophet Jonah was uncooperative and the people were dead set against God, somehow God got his way. Our objections seem to be no obstacle in the way of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.
We observe something similar in our passage from John. Once again, there is seemingly fierce resistance to Jesus. He is saying all kinds of wild things about the theology of the Feat of Tabernacles. The religious leaders want to arrest Him, but even when they sent out their minions to do it, the deputies were so amazed that they couldn’t arrest Him. (John 7.46). The plans of the resisters are thwarted again.
If anyone should have known about the need for humility and the dangers of overweening pride, it was the Jewish leadership. After all, they knew about the problems that led to the exile of the nation centuries before. They knew they were special, God’s chosen nation, but they should also have known from their own Scriptures that idolatry, legalism and formulaic worship were not acceptable to God. They should have been on the lookout for signs of God’s displeasure in their midst. Yet they were tone-deaf, so much so, that when the Son of God was standing right before them, they perceived Him as a threat to their power rather than as the Savior.
Perhaps we should just stop resisting the work of God in our lives. Maybe that’s the best take-away of all from this Lenten season. Jesus seems to be perfectly willing to allow us to flounder on, to choose badly and to beg him again and again for repentance. But, what if we just learned our lesson, trusted Him and decided to follow Him? Wouldn’t this make all the difference?
The hardest thing about the Christian life is becoming convinced that God’s ways are really better. Of course, we probably know that intellectually. But, are we really convinced in our heart that this is true? We may be experts at speaking pious platitudes, but when it comes down to it, we often prefer the way of the culture rather than the way of the disciple.
True discipleship will probably not win much praise from the culture. It may not even win praise from Christians because true sanctity is threatening for many, just like it was for the religious leadership in Jesus’ day. Just go into the public square and declare that we should love our enemies, even those that want to do us harm. Most will agree intellectually but it won’t win many plaudits if we start to threaten existing power structures.
But, if God can get His way with Nineveh, a nation completely dead-set against Him, couldn’t He do a remarkable work in our lives as well? It’s up to us to decide if we really want this.
Forgiveness has come in Christ. The question is whether we will accept that forgiveness even though it may entail surrendering all those false gods and ego gratification along the way.
The people of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes. Make an appointment with a priest to confess your sins and receive the promise of absolution.
- Prayer Walking
Sometimes we need to move our bodies to listen to the Spirit in our lives. Spend some time walking and praying, giving thanks to God for His creation and His work in your life.
It might be helpful to keep a record of the things you’ve been learning in Lent so you can remember them. Think about how God has been at work in your life over the past several weeks and make a record of it.
[i] Clement of Rome, “1 Clement,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 7, pp. 53–54.
[ii] Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 221.
[iii] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2014), 87.
[iv] Jack M. Sasson, Jonah, vol. 24b, Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale Press, 1995), 71.
[v] Walter Elwell and Barry Beitzel, eds., Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 1555.
[vi] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, eds., An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 447.