And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The Book of Jonah, a story filled with humor and oddities, ends up with an amazing last word from God. Compassion. In Hebrew, the original language of the Book of Jonah, chûs (חוּס) literally means to cover or to spare. God’s heart is to spare our lives, to spare us misery, to have concern for us. All of us. Not just nice people. Not just Nobel Peace prize winners. Not just “our kind of folk”. All people.
That is the punch line. For those who live with prejudice, it may be more like a punch in the gut. Some may think they are free of all prejudice. Maybe they just dislike everyone equally. We all play favorites. We all have our inner and outer circles, an “Us versus Them” mentality. The Book of Jonah keeps calling us beyond our comfort zone, into the wide-open, weird world in which we live to learn to love people who seem to us at least unlovable.
God’s concern or compassion is for you and me, for people who are unlovable because we have a hard time truly loving others without prejudice, judgment, hostility, resentment, bigotry, and a whole host of other unpleasantries attached to our attempts at love.
What are you concerned about? What do you “cover” with your attention? Who in your life right now needs you to cover them with kindness rather than judgment, forgiveness rather than resentment, compassion rather than condemnation? What is the last word you pronounce over a person’s life? Grace or judgment?
Consider the great cities of this world. Consider Tokyo, Japan with her 37 million. Or Jakarta, Indonesia with her 26 million. Or Seoul, South Korea; Delhi, India; Shanghai, China; Manila, Philippines; Karachi, Pakistan; New York City; Sao Paolo, Brazil; or Mexico City, Mexico; all with over 20 million inhabitants. I live in a coastal village of under 2000. You could fit ten thousand of my little villages into New York City alone. After 20 years of life in this little village, I still do not know everyone’s name, let alone, know how to best express God’s love in action to the people with whom I live.
God’s vision for compassion is a big vision. God asks as God’s last word, “shouldn’t I be who I am?” God is a God overbrimming with compassion, including compassion for the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the most violent, aggressive, brutal dictatorship in the known world at that time. God’s love is a grand love. God’s compassion reaches far and wide and deep and long, into the lives of those who don’t even know their left hand from their right. God’s compassion keeps pouring out of the abundance of heaven, onto our planet, into the lives of orphans, war-victims, refugees, the illiterate, the malnourished, the homeless, those who suffer from inadequate clean water, inadequate housing, inadequate medical care, inadequate education, inadequate parenting. According to the final word in the Book of Jonah, God’s compassion even covers the endangered animals of our planet who have few if any advocates or protectors.
God loves all creation with an extravagant love. God calls us as lovers to extend God’s great compassion to others, including to creatures of land, air and sea. Should we not be concerned? Should we also not have compassion?
“To the Ends of the Earth”, illumination from the St. John’s Bible.