Changing God's Mind

Each week, we look at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. This week we are looking at the Old Testament Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10. Verses 6-9, which are included in the link, details the acts of repentance shown by the people of Nineveh.

God is the God of Second Chances. 

That phrase gets tossed about so much that the idea loses its impact. The idea that God offers second, third, and four hundred and ninetieth chances is either something that we take for granted or we sweep under the rug like an eccentric relative who is perhaps a bit too generous with their money. But this passage in Jonah highlights this aspect of God.

Before we even get to the people of Nineveh, it's important to note that God gives Jonah a second chance. That's a pretty big deal. Jonah is possibly the most unlikable protagonist in scripture. He's a punk and, spoiler alert, never really veers from that trajectory save for a hail Miriam prayer in the belly of a big fish. When we come to the end of his titular book, Jonah is still grousing about all kinds of things; including what God does for Nineveh.

It is what God does for Nineveh that intrigues me. After his nautical detour, Jonah finally comes to town, preaches that doomsday is at hand, and the people of Nineveh immediately begin to fast and repent. Their act of repentance so moves God that God decides to show mercy. In fact, the text makes a specific point to indicate that God changed His mind.

That is a tantalizing and somewhat frightening thought. We often perceive God as this immovable first. Talking about lines that get tossed around, "God is the same yesterday, today, and forever" was a popular one where I grew up. That kind of idea can make you think that God does not ever change the course that has been set out. But several times in the Hebrew Bible, we see people change God's mind: we see Abraham bargain with God over the possible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we witness Moses convincing God to not wipe out the children of Israel.

It is important to me that when God's mind is changed, the trajectory shifts towards one of mercy. God does not capriciously decide to punish (which I realize is another topic for another time), but God leans in the direction of grace. I do not want to draw any hard and fast rules about God from this one Bible passage, but it seems like that God opts for grace more than we, as Jonah indicates, think God should. It is true that God does not just hand out free passes like Oprah hands out cars. But God offers grace in abundance.

We can sit here and ponder what it means for God to change His mind and be bent towards second chances. That is an important practice because I think that has implications for how we talk about God. But does it also change how we relate to the world around us? After all, we are supposed to be holy as God is holy. If God's holiness includes an enormous capacity for grace and change, then perhaps that means there can be more room for mercy in how we love those we see on the "outside" of our church walls. We ought to be merciful as God is merciful.

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