The popular memory of the book of Jonah is that it's a tale of a man who was swallowed by a fish. With a closer look, we discover the Big Fish has a bit part. He's merely the water taxi for a prophet who ran away from God.
There's so much in Jonah's story that is appropriate for Lent. Jonah avoids what God calls him to do, and go in the opposite direction. When the fish carries him back to his jumping-off place, he reluctantly goes to Nineveh, where he was first sent. He preaches a gloom and doom sermon, using a minimum of effort - only five words in Hebrew, only traveling a nominal distance into the city. And he is furious when the whole city repents and God changes his mind about blasting away Jonah's congregation.
"That's why I ran away in the first place," Jonah complains to God. "You're too kind to these people, and I couldn't stomach the fact that you would probably forgive them!"
To put it another way, Jonah is furious because God doesn't run the world according to the laws of punishment. If you do something wrong, there is always the possibility of forgiveness.
This is exactly what Jonah complains about: God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, ready to relent from punishment. He grumbles about it.
All of this is a set-up for God's last word in the book: "Shouldn't I be concerned about 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from the left? And their cattle?" It's a question still dangling in the air. It's a sign that God is interested in something more than punishment.
Thank God that the last word on our lives will be compassion – God’s compassion. Thank God that the end of punishment comes on Good Friday. The world punished Jesus by putting him on a cross - - and when we did that, we ourselves were not punished. Instead we heard the Crucified One pray, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know their right hand from their left.”
Well, so much for scorekeeping. Life is not about keeping track of sins, or clutching our grudges, or clinging to our judgments, or comparing ourselves favorably to others. Life is about the mystery of God’s compassion. Every moment of our lives is a milestone of God’s mercy. Every moment is an extravagant gift we could never afford to purchase. The grace of God is a gift, a free gift to pass along to others.
Makes me wonder: do you suppose the clearest sign that people belong to God is that they've decided to stop punishing one another?