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Fishing for mercy

Jesus begins his ministry with a big message: “The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Something about this dominion is powerful enough and dangerous enough to get John the Baptist thrown into jail.  This dominion of God submits to no earthly dominion, which is probably why it’s so dangerous.


So against all reason, this is the message Jesus brings to begin his ministry.  Wouldn’t you think this movement would be doomed from the start?  But he still gathers people, walking along the Sea of Galilee, calling out to the fishermen: “Follow me!” Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, “And I will make you fish for people.” 


These fishermen leave their nets and follow, immediately.  When Mark writes his gospel, he uses the word “immediately” like 28 times, which is more than twice the number of times you’ll find the word “immediately” in any of the other gospels. 


In Mark’s gospel, the dominion of God is about action.  Jesus makes an invitation into an action: follow me.  He didn’t say, ask around and verify if I’m telling the truth.  He didn’t say, do the stuff I tell you to do. 


He said, follow me.  Learning about the dominion of God, learning the way of Jesus requires following him.  Like an apprenticeship, where a student learns by doing.  Like on-the-job training. 


Christians have sometimes thought that “catching people” means “saving souls” by inviting people to follow Jesus, and we imagine a big net full of friendly people. And that’s fine.  But the language of “fishing for people” is another way of saying “fishing out injustice.”  Biblical scholar Ched Myers points out the words of prophets who speak about catching people with hooks as a way of describing judgment for those who oppress others.[1] 


The prophet Amos speaks to those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,” saying, “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fish-hooks.”[2] 


The prophet Ezekiel has some creative judgment in a time when the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has apparently claimed too much power over the land—Ezekiel writes, “Thus says the Lord God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon sprawling in the midst of its channels, saying, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’ I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales. I will draw you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels sticking to your scales. I will fling you into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your channels; you shall fall in the open field, and not be gathered and buried. To the animals of the earth and the birds of the air, I have given you as food.”[3] 


Uh, GROSS.  So what we want to get rid of is the oppression, the evil—and I believe this is what Jesus meant. But don’t we also kinda love it when we can vilify someone else and wish bad things upon them?  Can you think of anyone that you wouldn’t mind if they were dragged around by fishhooks?  Or maybe you have an enemy so terrible that you yourself would put a fishhook into them, gladly. 


This is where we tend to take things too far.  It’s a problem when humans get high on our own righteousness.  When we dehumanize someone else, we’re just handing over our own humanity and making ourselves part of the problem.  We love self-righteousness, but the problem is that we don’t have any righteousness.  God is righteous, and any righteousness we might claim actually comes from God. 


Does violence come to an end because of more extreme violence?  No.  The cycle of violence comes to an end when it is interrupted by mercy. 


Jonah is a prophet called by God to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, longtime enemies of Israel.  It’s such a short message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  It’s the kind of threatening message that might get a prophet arrested, and Jonah doesn’t want to go.  He’s so determined to avoid this call that he boards a ship headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh. 


He might have gotten away with this except God isn’t fooled—Jonah’s cruise is interrupted by a storm so huge that the sailors are throwing cargo overboard.  Jonah confesses, oh, this storm might be my fault, because of God, so throw me off the ship so the waves will stop crashing. 


Which is exactly what happens, and the sailors are so amazed, they come to believe in this God.  Perhaps Jonah is such a successful evangelist that sacrificing himself convinces other people of God’s power. 


Perhaps Jonah thought he would be the prophet fishing out injustice, declaring God’s vengeance upon human evil.  But instead of Jonah going fishing, Jonah encounters a fish who has gone peopling. He spends three days and three nights in the belly of some kind of fish, then he is spewed or spat or vomited up onto dry land.  And he finally heads to Nineveh, into enemy territory. 


Nineveh’s reputation for brutality was legendary, so Jonah believed that God would do as promised, to overthrow the city of Nineveh in 40 days.  Jonah was excited to see the fireworks and destruction of a city full of enemies—justice would be served! 


Except that the people of Nineveh do listen to Jonah’s message and they do repent, and not just the people but even the animals repent. God did not destroy the city, which was so unfair to Jonah, whose own repentance story included three days and nights in the belly of a great fish.  No one in Nineveh had to endure days and nights inside of a fish. 


At the end of the story, Jonah is sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Nineveh, still hoping to see some destruction.  It’s so hot that Jonah wishes to die, so God raises up a bush so that Jonah can enjoy some shade, and then Jonah’s kinda happy.  But the next day, the bush withers and Jonah gets all mad again.  Here’s how the story concludes:

9But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?"

And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." 

10Then the LORD said, "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. 

11And 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?"


God’s mercy can be such a disappointment when we don’t get to see the destruction or even the suffering of our enemies.  In a commentary on the book of Jonah, Callie Plunket-Brewton writes:

“There is much that is absurd in the book of Jonah: a man gets swallowed by a fish; animals don sackcloth, and a prophet gets so angry over the death of a bush that he wishes he were dead. But the questions the story provokes are quite serious.


Is God clueless or just terribly irresponsible? How can justice be served in the face of such mercy? How on earth can human beings hope to make sense of such a deity?...


Jonah challenges the perspective of the righteously indignant to put aside moral superiority and take on the character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Cycles of violence and blame can only be broken where mercy is extended. The only way forward for any of us is to demonstrate the same mercy that has been offered to us.”[4]


Martin Luther knows the limits of human righteousness and explains it clearly in the Small Catechism in the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed:

“I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with [Christ’s] gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.  In the same way [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. 


In this Christian church day after day [the Holy Spirit] fully forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day [the Holy Spirit] will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life.  This is most certainly true.” 


If we can be at least as wise as the people of Nineveh by the time Jonah reaches them, then we will know our need for God’s mercy.  We can repent without experiencing destruction.  And we can tell the story of a God of mercy, a God whose dominion has come near, in Jesus Christ.  Then maybe, by the grace of God, we too may become people of mercy. 


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Raj Nadella, Living the Word column: A Year of Transformative Leadership, Sojourners magazine, January 2024, page 49. 

[2] Amos 4:1-2

[3] Ezekiel 29:2-5


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