Today’s reading comes from Jonah 4:1-11.
Today we see the prophet Jonah in all his ironic, satirical glory. Much like Samson the judge, Jonah is almost a parody of a prophet. He hears the divine voice, but runs from it. When his preaching career turns out to be a success, he whines and mopes about it.
In today’s passage, Jonah loses his cool with God over a bush that had served as his shade from the sun for a day. He throws a dramatic tantrum comparable to that of a three-year-old who wants another piece of candy before bed.
Jonah feels utterly abandoned and unloved. One can imagine God standing by until the “prophet” runs out of breath and the screaming finally dies down.
God: “You done yet?”
God: “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?”
The reality of the situation is precisely the opposite of what Jonah fears. It’s not that God doesn’t love or doesn’t care; it’s that God loves and cares even more than Jonah can possibly imagine. Divine compassion extends far beyond the bounds that Jonah’s prejudice will allow… even to the heathen, the pagans, and the sworn enemies of God’s chosen people.
Today is also the day that we remember St. Cornelius, who served as Pope during one of the persecutions of the third century. He had a rival contender for that position: the Anti-Pope Novatian, who despised Cornelius’ liberal attitude toward those who had recanted their faith during the persecution.
Novatian, concerned primarily with the purity of the church, said there was no hope for those who abandoned Christ under duress; they were to be cast out forever.
Cornelius, on the other hand, left room for those who recanted to return to the fold, provided that due penance was completed. The door of divine grace is never closed to those who knock with an open heart.
I find it comforting that the historic church has acknowledged Cornelius over Novatian as the one who best represents the gospel. The church is willing to err on the side of grace and mystery, trusting that the river of God’s love runs deeper and wider than our own.
Let us not close our hearts to our fellow human beings like Jonah and Novatian. Whether it is in the name of politics or religion, our task is to “seek and serve Christ in all people” as it says in the baptismal vows of the Book of Common Prayer. This vow challenges us to not fall into the neat categories of politico-religious orthodoxy, purity, and exclusion. Our God is far to messy for that. God refuses to fit in our neatly organized boxes.
Like St. Cornelius, let us err on the side of grace and open our hearts, minds, and doors to our neighbors (especially those who we have reason to hate). Let us hear God challenge us again with the question he poses to Jonah:
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”