A few years ago I had a student who cheated. Pure and simple. There was no way around it. She handed in work that was not hers. She had simply gone on the internet and cut and pasted a bunch of stuff. She didn’t even cheat all that well. Then she handed it in and put her name on the top.
The student was totally unembarrassed. She could have cared less about what I thought. I talked with her gently about the cheating. But she refused to admit it. I gave her a second chance. She handed in the same plagiarized material. I asked her about the cheating, and she looked at me with that that kind of privileged attitude that told me that what I thought wasn’t important. She could do what she wanted. She was rude and self-righteous and most importantly, she didn’t stop.
Finally I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the administration. “Can you justify your accusations?” they asked me. It took time. I had to go on the internet and find and copy all the same things this student had copied. It took me several hours – hours I didn’t have – but I did it. I listed all the websites that she had used for cheating, put it all into a nice document, and handed it in.
“Okay don’t you worry, they said. “We’re going to take this problem off your hands.”
Great, I thought. I forgot all about it.
Then came an email. “We’re going to have a meeting with you and the student,” said the email from my bosses. “So that we can talk about this together.”
Talk about it? There was nothing to talk about. The evidence was all there, right in front of them. You’d have to be blind not to see the cheating. But I had no choice.
At the meeting the student was there, and some representatives from the university.
“We have a student here who is highly motivated to make this case work,” said one of my bosses. “We have agreed to let her submit her work again to you a week from today.”
“WHAT?” I thought. I have to do all this again?? Can I do something? Make some complaint? No, came the answer. You are to mark her paper again.
A week later the student handed in another essay. And again, the essay was full of other people’s work, badly cut and pasted.
I’ve always loved the story of Jonah. But the reason I love it you might find a bit odd. I love it because of how much it annoys me. God said Nineveh would be destroyed. And it wasn’t. Like my bosses at the university, God kept giving the benefit of the doubt to people who didn’t deserve it.
Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh and try and get the people to repent. But Jonah doesn’t WANT them to repent. Jonah wants them to suffer. “I’d just as soon all Ninevites turned to toast,” Jonah tells God. “In fact, as an Israelite and their sworn enemy, that would delight me. And secondly, even if I go and tell them, those people will never change”.
Go, said God. And eventually, with some convincing in the person of a big fish, the story is that Jonah goes to Nineveh. According to the Bible Nineveh was so vast that it took the angry old prophet three whole days just to walk across the city. “I’m telling you – it’s never going to happen,” Jonah says, trudging along. So like a sulky kid, upset with God for making him do this, he walks one whole day and then mumbles out what God told him to say.
“O great city of Nineveh, repent,” mumbles Jonah.
And miracle of miracles, the city actually DOES it! (Unlike my student) Nineveh repents.
And the people of Nineveh believed God, it says, and they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
And then, to my mind, comes the most important part of this lesson:
And then God saw what they did, it says, And God changed his mind about the calamity that God had said would come upon the city; and God did NOT do it.
But that’s not how the story ended for Jonah. Because if you keep reading on in the book, you find out that there was one unhappy prophet, still stuck there in the place he hated most in the world.
“What?” he yells at God. “You’re going to what? Cancel the destruction?!? All this trouble I’ve gone through, all the evil this city has done, and you’re changing your mind? How dare you?”
And so Jonah marched straight out of Nineveh and sat down and crossed his arms and said that he wasn’t going to budge until God lived up to his word and destroyed the place.
Most people, when they read about Jonah, get hung up on the details. Was there a whale or a great fish or what exactly? Is it a fable or a tall tale or history?
Thinking about those things is missing the point. To my mind, the whole point of Jonah is to tell us that God will do what God wants. Especially being unpredictable.
God both CAN, and DOES have a change of mind. And that means God is the one in charge. Not us.
Good thing we’re NOT the judges of the world. Because, like Jonah, my suspicion is that we would actually be much harsher, on ourselves and on others, than God turns out to be.
This last week a New Testament professor named Marcus Borg died. He wrote several books I’ve used in my classes, and a great book titled “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” He had a lot of what you could call “liberal” opinions about Jesus and the resurrection. And yet, he was open to the spiritual, open to others who disagreed with him, and confessed that Jesus was God’s messiah not only in history, but also for him.
What I liked best about Borg was that you couldn’t completely pin him down. He practiced a real gracefulness in his writings, and an unpredictability that looks, to me, very Christian.
Somewhere out there, in this city, is a student who graduated from my class without doing the work she was supposed to do. She’s a cheater. Pure and simple. And I’m still upset that justice wasn’t done.
But our God says that what’s important in life, actually, is not justice, but mercy. And that means that maybe, the next time WE screw up, the next time WE’RE the ones who are stubborn, or unfaithful, or impatient, or irresponsible, or late or sick or tired or just plain wrong, we can be thankful that we are loved, and worth being loved, anyway.
Once there was a prophet who got angry with God’s change of mind. The bottom line of Jonah is that we have a God who practices constant, and sometimes surprising forgiveness. Like Jonah, sitting under his tree, and like me with the university administration, may we learn that our judgments don’t really matter. And knowing that, may we learn to be less like Jonah, and more like Jonah’s God: more graceful, more forgiving, more surprisingly unjust in our mercy, and thus more like Christ.