One of my relatives has a certain qualm about heaven that he airs anytime the topic of heaven comes up. This relative (who shall remain nameless, on the off chance he decides to run for political office or enroll in seminary at some point) has a good grasp of grace, but there’s one person he can’t reconcile being admitted into the pearly gates.
“What if Hitler had a deathbed conversion and squeaked his way in to heaven?” he inevitably asks. “And what if it turns out my mansion is right next door to his?”
I know he’s mostly joking when he says this—or perhaps trying to incite a heated discussion, as he is wont to do—but there’s an underlying truth to his complaint. Everyone’s in favor of grace, but most of us apply asterisks to it, deeming certain people past its reach. I can accept that Jesus’ blood is enough to cover the sins I have committed, but surely not the child abuser, the serial rapist, the person who invokes intentional harm on me or the people I love.
I have to admit that since my Flannel Graph days, I haven’t had much sympathy for the prophet Jonah. What with getting himself thrown off a ship, being swallowed by a giant fish, and sulking in that big stomach-aquarium for three days, Jonah has a tragically comic feel about him. It’s easy to look at him and think, Duh, Jonah, it would have saved you a lot of hassle, not to mention seaweed ingestion, if you’d just gone to Nineveh the first time around.
But as I learned more about the city he was called to preach to, I realized that if I’d been in his shoes, I would have likely run off in the other direction too. Only maybe I would have stayed on dry land, seeing as I get a little queasy around digestive juices.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies at the time. Assyria was constantly at war, vying to become the dominant superpower in the ancient Middle East. The Assyrians were feared for their aggression in battle and their tendency to force the people in the lands they conquered to disperse to various parts of the Assyrian empire. It’s no wonder Jonah wasn’t especially excited to pay them a house call.
But eventually, with all the grace of a pouting toddler, Jonah delivered his message to the people of Nineveh. It was quite possibly the world’s shortest sermon:
“Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”
Shockingly, the people responded. They immediately repented over their sin, with fasting and deep mourning. And God, true to his character, had mercy on them, sparing them from the judgment they deserved.
And Jonah? Well, I guess he felt like he got to heaven only to find that Hitler was his next-door neighbor.
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”
In God’s eyes, no one is beyond the reach of grace. Not a wicked city. Not a pouty, stubborn prophet. Not a cruel dictator. Not even a sinner like me.
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.