When I walk through my grandma’s front door, I take an inhale and the smell immediately triggers a flood of memories. I see the blocks I played with as a child on the coffee table, my grandpa’s guitar waiting to be played in the corner, and the family table where I've spent nearly every holiday and special occasion for thirty years. I’m conditioned to look for those things.
I love to sit by my grandma and hear the same stories told over and over again. It’s hard to be objective with the things that are familiar, the stories we've heard told since we were young. It’s hard to notice something different in the house we come home to every night. We are set in our rhythms and patterns, and sometimes we fail to see what falls outside of them.
There’s a story about a man named Jonah that you’ve probably heard whether or not you grew up in church. It shares a lot of similarities with the story of Pinocchio. It’s easy to think we know the story we’ve heard dozens of times, but there are actually three things we get wrong about Jonah.
1. Jonah is a moral tale. We like to think that the universe operates in such a way that people who do good are blessed, and people who do bad are cursed. It only seems fair, right? When we approach the story of Jonah in this way, it becomes a moral lesson about the fate of the disobedient. Walt Disney’s Pinocchio uses themes of Jonah to portray the sufferings of the disobedient. Jonah is reduced to a negative example about what happens if you try to flee from God.
2. Jonah is about a fish. What happens if you don’t obey God? You get eaten by a fish! The fish becomes the focus of the story. We debate the fish. Was it a fish or a whale? We research whether or not a man could really live in a whale for 3 days. We study what fish were in the Mediterranean Sea at the time. The fish is what makes this story memorable, but the fish isn’t the point.
3. Jonah didn’t get it. I’ve heard the story told in a condescending tone, “Jonah didn’t get it.” Jonah just didn’t understand what God was trying to do, so he tried to escape the plan. Oh, Jonah got it! That’s exactly why he’s running. The violent enemy of his people, his nation, the people who tortured and killed infants and bragged about it, the people who were instilling fear in the world, were the very people God was sending him to warn.
Instead of wiping out this oppressive regime, God was having Jonah give them a warning. A WARNING! God was giving them the opportunity to repent and be saved. Jonah 4:2 shows us that Jonah knew what God was offering the Ninevites. He knew that God was gracious and compassionate and slow to anger and abounding in love and relents from sending calamity, and Jonah wanted no part of it!
This is a dangerous message for Jonah either way it is received. He could anger the Ninevites and they could skin him alive. The Ninevites could repent and then he has to explain to his people how he’s the one who gave them a warning and the reason God saved their enemy.
This story isn’t about why you should live a moral life, a big fish or an ignorant prophet. It’s a story about God’s desire to reconcile all things to himself. It’s a story about how much God loves the world, even the enemies of his people. It’s a story about God’s desire to make all things right in this world.
*This post is based on a sermon I preached on Jonah. Listen to it here: