Early in the Bible, and thus in God’s revelation about himself, God supplies his name to Moses. He calls himself “I Am” or “I Am that I Am” (Ex 3: 14). What we miss, however, is that in Hebrew the name is not limited to the present tense. It could just as easily (or perhaps more accurately) be translated “I will be who I will be”. It should be taken as a statement of absolute intent. God will be himself, period. We are being given a heads-up: man does not get to define God, nor contain him.
A little later Moses asks God to reveal his glory (Ex 33:18). In response, God says he will cause his goodness to pass in front of Moses, and will also proclaim his name. In supplying more detail to his core identity, God makes this astounding statement:
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex 33:19)
In other words, God declares that it is his right to be merciful and compassionate to whomsoever he wills. Again, it is a statement of absolute authority and intent. God reveals the hand he intends to play without complaint. Man simply does not get a say in it.
It should not surprise us, therefore, to find the Bible peppered with examples of God’s abundant mercy to those who do not deserve it, those whom we would be quick to condemn. But more than that, it is revealing to observe just how much that narks us.
Here are just a few examples of how God acts “beyond the pale” in human eyes:
1. God is too compassionate
When Jonah was called to go to Nineveh and proclaim that it would be destroyed he initially ran away. Later, when he did go and preach, the Ninevites believed God and repented and when God saw this he had compassion and did not destroy the city (Jonah 3:10). And what was Jonah’s response?
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (Jonah 4:1)
Suddenly we discover that Jonah hates God’s compassion. Jonah credits knowledge of God’s compassion & abundant love as the very reason he wouldn’t go to Nineveh in the first place! (Jonah 4:2).
God challenges Jonah’s hostility: “Should I not be concerned for that great city?” (Jonah 4:11)
2. God is too generous
In Matthew 20, Jesus illustrates the Kingdom of God as being like a landowner hiring men for his vineyard. He recruits some early in the morning to work a day’s labour for a denarius. He then recruits some more at the 3rd hour, more again at the 6th hour, more at the 9th hour and yet more at the 11th hour. Thus the first workers have put in at least a 10 hour day, if not a full 12 hours. But when it comes to payment, everyone received a flat rate of 1 denarius. The ones who put in a full day grumbled, saying the landowner was making the ones hired last “equal” to them. They expected the landowner to be fair, to pay pro-rata according to the effort put in. But the landowner replies:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you bitter because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15)
3. God is too forgiving
When the Pharisees (self-appointed guardians of the law who added endless stipulations to ensure the law didn’t get accidentally broken) saw how Jesus welcomed and ate with “sinners” it really riled them (Luke 15:1-2).
To expose them, Jesus told them the parable of the prodigal son.
In the parable of the prodigal son, we see the younger son insult his father by asking for his inheritance early, waste his inheritance on an indulgent lifestyle, and then return home hoping to find paid employment. Rather than being angry with his wayward son, the father lavishes forgiveness and mercy upon him. Dressing him with his best robe, and placing a ring on his finger, the father kills the fattened calf for him and throws a party with music and dancing. And what is the reaction to this celebration of the obedient older brother, who has slaved for his father his entire life?
He is livid. He is too angry even to go into the house (Luke 15:28-30).
4. God is too lawless
The Pharisees had observed how Jesus was prepared to “break” the Sabbath in order to do good works; it clearly miffed them that Jesus didn’t toe the line the way they did. And even when Jesus argued (with authority, of course) that to do good on the Sabbath would be lawful (Luke 6:9), nevertheless his healing of a shrivelled hand still made them furious (Luke 6:11).
When God is too nice, men get angry.
So what do we take from those biblical narratives which demonstrates a mercy that is wild and free…. and a hostility in response?
Anyone who expects tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, reward-for-effort is going to get pretty cheesed off whenever unmerited, undeserved mercy is handed out. God isn’t fair. He doesn’t play by the rules: