Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The readings this week offer two surprises that are good for us to ponder in Lent: one for the sinner, and one for the righteous.
We hear the episode of Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh. Understand — not only was Nineveh filled with sin, it was also the capital of Assyria, a major enemy of ancient Israel. The Bible is saying: you can’t get more opposed to God than this! Jonah preaches, Nineveh repents, and the city is spared from destruction.
This was a bitter surprise to Jonah, who personified the attitude of much of Israel at the time. Most of Israel, at this point in its history, held a position that’s still instinctive for many of us: virtue leads to reward and sin leads to punishment. That’s not entirely wrong. But if it’s the whole story, then the treatment of Nineveh makes no sense. What else could be going on — what is God trying to say?
The prophet Ezekiel explains God’s logic very clearly. On the one hand: “If the wicked man turns away from all the sin he committed … None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him.” Ezekiel then spells out the other side of the coin: “And if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil … None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered.”
Israel was approaching the covenant as a ledger. But God was saying, the covenant is not a ledger, it’s a relationship. My concern is not simply with achievement, which lies in the past; my main concern is with movement, which lies in the present.
Sure, Nineveh was the capital of the enemy of Israel. Sure, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Sure, Peter denied Jesus. But the Lord asked for their repentance, they accepted the invitation and the movement is what pleased Him. Likewise for us: no matter how bad we’ve been, God’s invitation is still there. That’s surprisingly good news for the sinner!
But we should ponder the other side of the coin, as well: no matter how much good we may have done in the past, what matters most is the direction of our movement in the present. That’s surprisingly challenging news to the righteous. And three episodes this week drive home the point.
First we hear about Queen Esther. She had never committed any great sins. But that wasn’t enough. She was called to go deeper in her relationship with the Lord in order to save the Jewish people in a time of crisis.
Second, we hear Jesus say directly: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Third and last, consider Jesus’ refrain in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you.” Again and again, Jesus says that the old law was good, but the new law requires something deeper. He relentlessly pursues the whole heart.
And there’s the key: God pursues, relentlessly. The sinful person who despairs and the righteous person who presumes both commit the same error. They misunderstand who God is; they think that the achievement of the past is all that matters to God. But if God’s character is to pursue, and theology tells us that God is unchanging, then God is always pursuing, always inviting deeper. That means the sinful person is always welcome to repent, and the righteous person is always challenged to go deeper.
God is relentlessly pursuing each of us, inviting repentance, and calling us deeper into His life. Past achievement is not the key; present movement is. That’s worth pondering as we enter the first full week of Lent. How is God pursuing you, and what’s your response?