I’ve always seen the story of Jonah and the whale as a strange and rather far-fetched consequence of running from God’s calling. But now I see it as a beautiful lesson in forgiveness, and God’s equal bounty of love, and of what incredible lengths God will go to in order to teach his children about mercy.
Here’s the basic premise: Jonah’s a prophet, and a good dude, but one day God asks him to travel to Nineveh to tell the wicked people to repent. Jonah’s like “Those people? Those rotten, stinking Gentiles that spit on our religion and hate our ways and hurt their own women and children? No thanks.” So he runs off to a sailboat and thinks he can hide, but the seas grow crazy wild. Finally Jonah realizes God doesn’t do hiding places, so he tells the crew to throw him over. They all get scared to death but end up thinking God is one big-bad motha, and Jonah ends up water-bound. But instead of drowning, Jonah is swallowed up by a big fish-like thing, and ends up miraculously alive in a bubble of whale intestines where he can apparently breathe. I’m not sure about the logistics of all this, but if Jesus can walk on water I’m sure people can survive in stomach-acid if God commands it. So for three days Jonah just floats around in there, praising God for his salvation and for God’s imminent glory, I’m sure all the while stinking like cooked cabbage.
Three days later the fish spits him out on dry land, and Jonah’s response is, “Fine, Lord. I’ll go.” So he travels to Nineveh for a bath and a proclamation that their nation will be ruined if they don’t repent. He’s not really serious about the repentance part. It’s more of a “You slimeballs will someday rot in hell and I can’t wait to tell my girlfriend back home that I got to say this to you people” type of thing. But miraculously, the people believe him. Probably because if they do, he’ll leave, and ain’t nobody want to hang around a dude that smells like chewed up fish intestines. So they all bow down and fast and declare allegiance to God, giving up their evil ways and asking God to look upon them with compassion. And when God hears their heartfelt prayers, he did not ruin their nation and bring about destruction and ends up sparing the people.
Now at this point Jonah’s looking around at all the happy slimeballs like Wait a second. I just told these people off and now I have to eat those words? They are terrible and evil and you’re just going to wipe them all clean like it was nothing? I like it that God asks him whether he has the right to be angry about this and Jonah’s like “heck yes I do.” Then he goes off somewhere in the city square, sits down, and sulks.
So as Jonah’s sitting there throwing a tantrum, the Lord creates a vine around him to shield him from the sun, which makes Jonah happy, but then a worm comes along and eats it, and Jonah’s generally pissy about the whole thing. Then God basically says “you’re concerned about this vine, which sprang up quickly and died quickly, but you don’t care about the entire nation of Nineveh?” Then Jonah doesn’t get a chance to answer because the book ends.
See? So much more than a whale.
I see myself more in Jonah than most characters in the Bible. I am stubborn, and I don’t always want to follow God’s commands. Like Jonah, I see myself as special – not sinful and hateful and terrible like those people over there. And if God called me to minister to those people over there, I’d be busy doing my hair and making pot roast and going on vacation and singing in church. What’s it going to take for me to listen to God’s plan for my life? How far will God go to reach me? When will those people over there be rated as equal to me? I turn to those people over there and my heart is filled with hate. I would never do what they do. I would never turn from God so far.
I am not them.
And so life throws me overboard. And I fall so very far, and so deep. But from the depths of the grave. From the heart of the sea. From the hurling arm of God into the deep waters, “where the currents swirled about me, all your waves and breakers swept over me. . . The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me, seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down, the earth beneath barred me in, but you brought my life up from the pit.” Jonah 2.
And I’m alive. Somehow in this swirling mass of death I’m caught in a strange pocket of life. Long enough to breathe. Long enough to raise my arms in praise. Long enough to sense a form of leveling, and realize that I am not special. Those people over there are just as desperate for God as I am, and they are just as worthy of salvation.
Oh, Jonah. Israel is not the only nation worth loving. And we, as the body of Christ, are not the only people worth the resurrection. Everyone, even those deeply rooted in sin and taken over by evil –those who are lost and broken and tired – they are worth reaching. They are worth redeeming. Husbands who cheat on their wives. Executives who skim the margins. Men who rape and women who hurt and those groups that snarl hate and venom in the name of God. Republicans and Abortion Clinics and Liberal Media and George Bush and the whole net of us humankind – God’s healing mercy is for us all.
Sometimes it takes sinking in a deep black hole, when life seems to be ebbing way, to set our sights in the right direction. God has to literally build a vine and dry it up, cause the seas to rise and fall – forcing us to put our pride aside and realize that all people get a hall pass at grace.
But Lord, they don’t deserve it, I scream. I sit in disbelief that my life has been filled with worship and their life was filled with decay and at the end we all end up in the same place. And instead of being gracious about it I turn up my nose and scowl. I doubt God’s compassion is equal. I am angry that they are welcomed into the kingdom. I feel I’ve somehow earned it. And when God asks if I have that right, I’m honest. “Yes, Lord. I’m angry enough to die.”
But brothers, we are all in this together. Those people over there and us. We’re all trapped together in one stinking whale-belly of a life, and salvation abounds.