Fear of God’s justice and awe of His tender mercies compete to be king on the mountain of my emotions. He is perfect in truth, righteousness and justice and yet, in His infinite wisdom He is, at the very same time, full of compassion and loving kindness! How great is our awesome God and King!
But, how can this be?
Consider this story, my paraphrase of a parable I heard from Rabbi David Forman: Suppose, God forbid, that someone you love and are very close to was viciously attacked in the most diabolical way. The attacker was taken to prison and put on trial. The judge stood, heard the horrible crimes listed in gruesome detail, the villain pleads guilty and then…. The judge proclaims, “Not guilty; the case is dismissed!”
If you are a normal human being, you would be outraged! Where is justice? You can’t just let a crook get off scot-free! He deserves to be severely punished!
Jonah is one of the traditional Bible readings for Yom Kippur. One could say that it is appropriate because of the theme of repentance. Nineveh was doomed to destruction, they repented and God spared them. A closer look at the story reveals that there is an even deeper, Yom Kippur lesson within the story.
In the book Jonah, chapter four verse two, Jonah says: “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
This is a direct quote from Exodus chapter thirty-four verse six, except for one major difference. Jonah says “One who relents from doing harm,” but in Exodus God says that he is “abounding in truth”. Why would Jonah deliberately leave that out? The answer is obvious. Jonah is saying that God is the judge portrayed in our previous analogy! If God says Nineveh can go scot-free just because they repent then He is not a God of truth! He is only the God of mercy and compassion.
“Sight and Sound” theaters does a great job portraying this very idea in their production of the Jonah story. Jonah sings out, “You offer mercy when I want the sword. Justice calls loud and long, the wicked must perish, the meek grow strong. No mercy for those who cause such grief. It’s justice, justice I seek…You say mercy but I say no! They must pay!”
So how can God maintain truth and justice simultaneously? Obviously, as Christians, we believe that God sent His Son, Yeshua, to pay our debts so that we could be free. By His blood, He has provided atonement for us. In this way, God has acted in perfect justice and truth.
Jews and Christians agree that repentance is a critical component of receiving forgiveness from God. In order to receive his great mercy, we must acknowledge our wrongdoing and repent (turn around). God does not accept rebellious sinners. He fully embraces repentant sinners! This Yom Kippur, may our pride, the deadbolt on the chains of our sin, be unlocked through the key of humbly repenting and giving ourselves fully to our Creator!
I think a big reason why God is compassionate is because he sees our potential. Though the Ninevites were the most wicked of people, God knew that they had the potential to repent and serve Him. Could this also be an area where God is just and merciful? Does He judge us not only by what we have done but also by what He knows we can do? I heard a pastor once say that God is “the God of second chances”. This is certainly the case with Jonah! Despite His desire to run away from God, God keeps on giving him another chance to obey and follow his calling.
This Yom Kippur, let us give thanks to God who has blessed us with abundant grace and compassion while still maintaining perfect justice and fulfilling all righteousness. May we learn from our mistakes and press on to fulfill our God-given destinies!
May your fast be meaningful this year,