Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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. . . not to mention the many cattle

. . . not to mention the many cattle. (Jonah 4:11)

Doesn’t this read more like the punch line of a joke than a verse from the Bible? Here God is, explaining to Jonah why he had compassion on the people of Nineveh, and his argument hinges on . . . cows?

What makes something funny? Reversed expectations. Irony. Unforeseen twists. The Book of Jonah has all of them. It’s no mistake: the humor is there to get our attention, to help us reexamine how we think about compassion and God’s mercy.

Look at some examples: the title character is a prophet. He is supposed to be especially close to God, and yet he blatantly disobeys God’s command and does the exact opposite of what God asks. He actually thinks he can hide from God by running away!

Jonah is rescued when he jumps into the sea. How? A giant fish swallows him—and he’s a grown man! Not only that, but after three days in this unconventional watercraft, Jonah is saved when the fish vomits him back up on land!

And what about the cattle? They have to fast, just like the citizens of the city. Imagine the poor cattle herders trying to put sackcloth on their cows!

These examples might make us chuckle, but they also prompt us to think: Can we really run from God? Does a tyrant like the king of Nineveh deserve forgiveness? Does God really take care of all his creation, even when it rebels against him?

In the end, Jonah teaches us that compassion rises above and beyond judgment and anger any day of the week. Reconciliation is better than retribution. God is patient and merciful even toward the seemingly most “unforgivable.”

If these ideas seem difficult to embrace, you’re in good company. Look at the way Jonah pouts! But God patiently reminds him, as well as us, that he loves all his creation. Just think: even the cattle of Nineveh are so valuable to him that he spares them. How much more precious, then, is each human being made in his image and likeness. How we are blessed with mercy and forgiveness! To the glory of God. Amen.

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