Sunday, April 5, 2015

Minor Prophet, Major Lesson: It's Not About the Whale

You all may have seen this video circulated on the internet from time to time. It pokes a bit of fun at the stereotypical woman, who wants her man to just listen and understand her problem, while the man is busy trying to actually solve the problem. But I think, even as a woman, I can say this video is pretty funny...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg

I think we've had a bit of a misunderstanding as well, when it comes to the story of Jonah. You know, the old VBS favorite: "Jonah and the Whale". Or "Jonah and the Great Fish", more accurately, I suppose.

But I can't help but think how often we've gotten the story of Jonah and the whale so wrong, at least in the way we teach it to our kids. Maybe your situation was different, but I feel like largely when we teach the story of Jonah to our kids, it goes something like this:  "God told Jonah to preach to these evil people, but Jonah didn't want to, so he tried to run away from God. But silly Jonah, he should have known better! God is everywhere, all the time, so nobody can run from Him. Look at what happened to Jonah. When he ran from God, he was swallowed by a whale. Three days later, the whale vomited Jonah up onto the shore (ewww!). Then Jonah did what God asked him to do."   The moral of the story? This is what happens when you try to run from God. We seem to leave out chapter 4 entirely. At least I don't recall learning what happened in Jonah 4 when I was VBS-aged.

In reality, though, I believe that when you try to run from God, sometimes...He lets you go. I think of Romans 1, which speaks of people being aware of God's law and choosing not to follow it, so, as Paul says, He turns them over to their own evil desires. This in itself can be a fate worse than any "punishment" God may dole out. And I think this principle can be seen in the fact that Jonah himself didn't really view the whole whale-situation as God's punishment for his disobedience. Rather, while Jonah is in the belly of the fish, he praises God for saving him from death. On some level, the whale must have represented Jonah's salvation, because without it, he would have drowned.

Something else that has struck me as ironic about the story of Jonah is how different it is from the stories of other prophets in the bible. This makes for a very ironic story in scripture. Most of the other prophets in scripture are obedient to the Lord, doing what He asks, even if it's difficult. Jonah, on the other hand, though he's supposed to be God's prophet, appears to be the absolute worst character in the story. Stack him up against anyone else.

The sailors? While Jonah slept, they were calling on their gods, praying for the storm to cease. They woke Jonah and urged him to call on his God. When it came to light that Jonah was the cause of the storm, and Jonah told them to throw him overboard, and they didn't want to! They tried to row back to land. Only when it was clear that this was impossible did they throw him overboard, but not without first crying out to the Lord for forgiveness. When the storm grew calm, they greatly feared the Lord and sacrificed to him.

The Ninevites? They believed God! They heard the word of the Lord and repented. The king of Nineveh declared a fast, ordering everyone in the city to put on sackcloth. He said, "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger."

  Jonah? He first tries to run from God. When he's swallowed by the fish, he offers a prayer to God in chapter 2, which seems very sincere. He praises God for His mercy and is thankful for the Lord's salvation. I can only believe that Jonah's repentance was heartfelt, since, when given a second opportunity, he obeys the word of the Lord. He goes to Nineveh and he preaches. But in chapter 4, we find Jonah angry. Angry that the Ninevites were the recipients of the same compassion and grace and salvation that he was a recipient of, just two chapters prior. In chapter 4, Jonah complains, saying, "I knew this was going to happen!" Particularly, he says of the Lord, "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

I think that's the real key to the story of Jonah. It's not about God's punishment. It's not about Him sending calamity. It's not about the whale. It's about Him being gracious and compassionate, not only to me but also to those who I feel like may not deserve His mercy.

Because if I find myself feeling that way, it may just so happen that I'm the one in the story who needs His mercy the most.

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