A few years ago, my wife Ashley read Moby Dick, and we were in New England at the time, and she ergo we, became obsessed with whales. We watched a video about the Essex, the ship that Melville’s book was based upon, we read whale books to our children and toured the whaling museum in New Bedford, MA.
My guess is that most of you would think about whales when you hear a reading from Jonah. Yes, it is correct that Jonah met a large and said fish has often been translated and interpreted as a whale. Correct. Surely there is more to this short four-chapter book than fish, surely this minor prophet is pointing towards something else?
Yes, the story of Jonah, is a story of forgiveness, of mercy, or grace. It is the story of sin. The themes that mirror a whale is the largeness of the forgiveness being offered, of God’s grace and the sins, which beg for mercy.
A quick review of the story. We find Jonah, a Hebrew, who is God calls to “rise” up and preach/cry out to Nineveh…Jonah DOES not want to do this. Can you blame him? He is being asked to mediate forgiveness to his people’s mortal enemies! Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian enemy; the mighty Assyrian army was the first known user of horse driven war chariots that carried Archers as well. The Assyrian empire persecuted, killed and enslaved the Jews. Here are a few highlights from the Old Testament:
From the Prophet Isaiah: Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands.
From the Prophet Nahum: Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey!
The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end— they stumble over the bodies!
Yes, the Assyrians kill and maim the Jews, God’s people, and yet, God’s message to them today is forgiveness and mercy if Jonah travels to Nineveh. Even though it is clear that the Assyrians are not deserving of anyone’s forgiveness.
Jonah task is to preach God’s message that is amounts to complete forgiveness and mercy to the sworn enemy of his own people. Have you ever been in a position where you could offer the way out to your sworn enemy?
What would you do? Well, Jonah, does what I would do, he runs, he runs the opposite direction of Nineveth – he runs towards Tarshish. He gets on a boat, and he ends up on the ship, and God disrupts the water, the sailors are scared, and pray out to their individual Gods, their Pagan Gods, but Jonah recognizes this work as being from God, Yahweh, the Creator, and so he sacrifices himself by throwing himself into the water and this is where we swallowed the great fish and held for three days, we pick the story up today as Jonah was just vomited out of the fish’s mouth and calls commands him to offer the way of forgiveness to the Ninevites. Jonah, reluctantly still, follow God. God forgives all of the sins of the ninivites. The ninivties are saved. Jonah becomes the prophet that mediates the love and forgiveness of God.
I want to tell you a story of Andy and Kate Grosmaire. The story begins with a phone call about a tragic accident, their daughter Ann, a tall 19yr old with long blond hair, smart, funny, and her entire future in front of her, has been shot and is in critical conditions.
The Grosmaire’s raced to hospital, praying for Ann and trying to find Conor McBride, Ann’s boyfriend. They reached Conor’s parents, and they were on the way to the hospital as well. It was at the hospital, in the intensive care unit, when they realized what had happened – Conor had shot his girlfriend Ann, their daughter. Over the next three days the families, minus Conor, who was in jail, sat Vigil over her bed. Andy describes this time…
Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”
On the third day, the Grossmaire’s decided to stop medical treatment, but before they gave the Doctor the orders, Kate visited Conor in Jail.
Kate relayed a message from Andy, “Tell him I love him and that I forgive him.”
Andy said Kate told Conor that she wanted to forgive him as well, she wanted to release him from a debt he owed to them because he could never repay it.”
When Kate returned to the hospital, she and Andy removed Ann’s life support, and Ann died a few hours later.
The Grosmaire’s decided to take Conor McBride’s “justice” out of the penal system, and they decided to go and sit with him. To meet with the sinner, Conor McBride. They decided, after much prayer and discernment, to pursue a process called restorative justice that creates a space for full transparency of the crime and allows for all parties to participate. This process is painful, long, and requires much work in the way of talking and listening by all parties. The authorities did not like this approach; this was a murder trial, and the tough on crime DA was not supported and asked questions of why, and how and why? Over the course of a few months the Grosmaire’s convinced all partied involved and worked with professionals to facilitate an official conference – as a test against before a trial. It was there that they heard the gruesome and horrifying murder of their daughter. The story is enough to make you weep for the Grosmaire’s and curse the sin of Conor McBride. It was cold-blooded murder.
The Grosmaire’s, in the face of this emotional day, offered Conor forgiveness. They suggested a light prison sentence and after much deliberation with the powers, the DA agreed to twenty years in prison – much less than the mandatory murder sentencing. The Grosmaire’s in their forgiving of Conor feel as if they can remember their daughter, the forgiveness and the meetings gave them a sense of peace and enabled them to remember Ann.
Kate Grosmaire keeps asking herself if she has forgiven Conor. “I think about it all the time,” she said. “Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” Even as the answer comes back yes, she says, it can’t erase her awareness of what she no longer has. “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”
Many of us may never know the extremes of watching your mortal enemies be forgiven and saved by God like Jonah, or having to confront the murderer of a loved one. I pray that you never have to go through any of this.
However, these powerful and moving illustrations of active forgiveness offer illuminated another form of forgiveness, passive forgiveness. A forgiveness that flows from a never ending font of unconditional love. Forgiveness that we receive, and that flows from Heaven to you and to me. To Jonah, to Nineveh, to Kate and Any Grosmaire, to Conor McBride.
Forgiveness offered by another prophet, a messiah in fact, this one a Son, a Son of God, who proclaims that the Good News has arrived, and does not jump in the water to save the sailors, but hangs on a Cross to forgive the world. To forgive you and me, to reverse the logic of forgiveness by offering it freely and passively to you and me. Who says, as he hangs dyeing, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Who did not descend into the belly of fish for three days, but descended into hell for three days, and who rose again, so that we might not die, but have everlasting life and to offer us unconditional forgiveness. You are forgiven. You are free to offer forgiveness only because you are already forgiven.