From the earliest days of Christianity, the passage from Jonah 3 was read as a summons to repentance and a reminder of God’s grace. Caesarius of Arles, writing in Gaul at the turn of the sixth century, encouraged all to “be converted, pray, bewail, and merit mercy from threatened punishment.” Repent now, he urged, for the time will come when “there is no chance of amendment.” Nineveh was given forty days to amend their ways. God, in His goodness, exercises great patience with us as well. But there are consequences if we refuse this grace.
John Chrysostom, writing over 100 years earlier, was even more eloquent in his analysis of the passage and his application to the lives of those who heard him preach. As the archbishop of Constantinople, he was lauded for his preaching and public speaking (the epithet Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed”), even though his oratory skills often got him into trouble with the ecclesiastical and political authorities. One of the most prolific writers of the Early Church, only Augustine has more writings that survive to this day.
Within his Homilies on Repentance and Almsgiving, Chrysostom urged all “to marvel at the philanthropy of God, who was satisfied with three days of repentance for so many transgressions. I do not want you to sink into despair, even though you have innumerable sins.” Again, God’s grace is that great! The warning given to Nineveh was given specifically so that the people might follow God’s admonition in 2 Chronicles 7:14, and “humbly pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.” This continues to be God’s desire today.
And it is true even for persons who don’t fully understand the gospel of grace. “They do not know the issue, and yet they do not neglect repentance,” Chrysostom wrote in his Homilies Concerning the Statues, referring again to the Ninevites. It’s an example of the prevenient grace of God, working without our awareness or understanding. “They are unacquainted with the method of the lovingkindness of God, and they are changed amid uncertainty.”
Never one to pull punches, Chrysostom turns such a promise into the call for deeper relationship with God, particularly among those who have been in the Church. You “have many times received pledges of His care, and have heard the prophets and apostles, and have been instructed by the events themselves, and yet you do not strive to attain the same measure of virtue as they?” How, he wondered, are you not living the life that Christ has called you to live, has freed you to live?
This is part and parcel of holiness, after all.
Saint Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that “God said that light should shine out of the darkness.” To illustrate this point, in his Homilies on 2 Corinthians 4:6, Chrysostom referred back to the Ninevites once again. “They applied fasting to their wounds. Yes, they even applied extreme fasting, lying prostrate on the ground, putting on sackcloth and ashes, and lamentations. More importantly, they chose a change of life.”
He asked “let us then see which of these things made them whole.” And responds that God “did not say simply that He saw their fasting and sackcloth and ashes, but their behavior. I say this not to question fasting,” at which point Chrysostom inserts an almost obligatory “God forbid!”, but clarifies that his purpose is “to exhort you that with fasting you do that which is better than fasting, the abstaining from all evil.”
As Jonah 3:10 says, “God saw what they were doing, that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and He didn’t do it.” May we similarly cease our “evil behavior” and rest in the confidence that God continues to be, as Psalm 145:8 proclaims, “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding steadfast love.”