The story of Jonah is one of the Bible’s most familiar tales. It begins with the dramatic image of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. That’s punishment for Jonah’s unwillingness to follow God’s command.
That distressing situation has the intended effect on Jonah. In his aquatic prison, he relents, prays, declaring a new allegiance to God. Then the great fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”
That’s a amazing story! No wonder it gets so much attention! People love to debate if the story is factual or allegorical. Some even speculate what kind of creature entombed Jonah for three days.
I fear such attention is ill placed. The story has two other more important lessons for us. Both of them are too often overlooked. We should not let the debate about the possibility of Jonah’s unusual incarceration keep us from spending time with the Scripture’s important lessons.
Jonah was in his predicament because he was running from a command God had given him. He was to preach repentance to the evil people of Nineveh. But Jonah didn’t want to confront them about their evil. In that regard, he may be like us. We’re good at complaining about things we think are wrong, and/or about those persons we think are wrong. It’s another thing, however, for us to be face to face with those who need to know and understand their faults and shortcomings. It may be extra difficult to point the finger of accusation – in the name of the Lord.
That lesson from the Book of Jonah is important, one we need to hear in terms of helping those around us, and especially in confronting the potential evil in those who are our leaders – or wish to be.
I also find a second, less obvious lesson from Jonah’s spiritual journey. We know Jonah was reluctant to preach to the people of Nineveh because they were so evil. Such preaching would be all the more difficult because he was to tell them that God intended to destroy the city because of there sinfulness.
Having been shaken to his core with his three-day encapsulation in the whale, Jonah preached with dynamic vigor. In fact, he was so powerful and effective that the people repented. They repented their evil ways.
Then an unusual thing happened, God changed his mind! God spared Nineveh the fate he has intended them! His reaction is recorded in Jonah 3:10: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would being upon them; and he did not do it.”
Wow! “God changed his mind!” That certainly upended Jonah’s spiritual equilibrium. In fact, he was downright angry. After all he’d used up a good supply of his “fire and brimstone” in his preaching only to have God alter his earlier threat.
However, I can’t be too hard on Jonah. After all, we don’t often even speculate on the possibility that God might change his mind. We generally think about God as the “absolute” of our existence, our universe. We talk about God as the “rock” to indicate his ultimate dependability.
But if God is God? (That sound like a silly question?) Then God has the power to do anything – even change his mind. Indeed, I like the implication of this story: God awaits the opportunity to change his mind – based on the integrity and intensity of the way we link our lives with his.
Jonah’s story ultimately is not about his being swallowed by a whale. It’s an invitation to all of us to link our lives with God’s intentions with such certainty that God can be at work – fulfilling Paul’s words: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Rev. William McCartney is a retired United Methodist minister and a professor emeritus of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.