What is the story of Jonah about?

Ask that in a Sunday school or church setting and the automatic answer is “A guy who ran away from God and got swallowed by a whale big fish.” Because we church-goers know the difference between an whale and a big fish. [insert smug-face emoji here]

Seriously. The whole story of Jonah is about a guy who got swallowed by a fish? Really? That’s all we get out of the story?

Do you know how much of the story is devoted to the fish? Three verses. Yes, three. Count them:

17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 1:17; 2:1 & 10)

The same number of verses mention the “leafy plant” God gave Jonah for shade. So should we say that Jonah is about a guy who needed a break from the sun?

The story of Jonah is not about a storm, a fish, a plant, or a worm. It’s not about pagan sailors or wicked Assyrians or a runaway prophet. The story of Jonah is a story about God. God is the main character. God is the plot. God is the twist. God is the climax. God is the resolution. God is the moral. Creation – both human and not human – is the supporting cast.

The story of Jonah is contained in 4 chapters totaling 48 verses. By my own count, God is mentioned approximately 58 times (God, the LORD, you, He, I, etc.). Fifty-eight times in 48 verses!

This is a story about God.

But what do we learn about God? I would say that we don’t learn anything about Him that we haven’t already learned. In fact the story of Jonah is only reaffirming in narrative form what God has already told the nation of Israel all the way back in Exodus:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

God’s own explanation of his character here in Exodus raises certain questions: What does that look like in real life? What if we were to take that to the extreme?  Is there anyone God can’t/won’t forgive? Is his mercy and compassion limited to the children of Israel or does it apply to everyone?

In the story of Jonah we see God forgiving the sinful pagan sailors, the rebellious prophet Jonah, and the wicked citizens of Nineveh.

Who does God love? Who can God forgive? To whom is God faithful? To whom does God show his grace?

We all know the answer to those questions: “Everyone!” But Jonah knew the answer, too. It’s one thing to know the answer. It’s another thing to actually see the answer played out.

The ISIS soldier or the Samaritan’s Purse missionary – who does God love?
The raped woman or the rapist – who does God love?
The bullied or the bully – who does God love?
The one killed or the one who murdered – who does God love?
The preacher or the militant atheist – who does God love?
The nun or the lesbian – who does God love?
Israel or Assyria – who does God love?
Jonah or the pagan sailors – who does God love?

We are more like Jonah than we like to admit. He was a prophet of God. He knew God. He spoke for God. He was God’s servant. But then God called him to do the impossible, the unthinkable, the inconceivable! Jonah was called to take the word of the Lord to the archenemy of Israel.

It’s one thing to minister to the victims. It’s another thing to minister to the perpetrators. It’s one thing to comfort the abused. It’s another thing to comfort the abuser. It’s one thing to instill value in the kid who is bullied. It’s another thing to instill value in the bully.

It’s one thing to “love your neighbor and hate you enemy.” It’s another thing to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jonah is the only biblical story I know of that ends with a question. It’s a rhetorical question, but one that calls the readers to action. It calls us to a change of heart, a change of understanding. It’s a question that urges us to see the world as God sees it. And if God should not be concerned about the wicked people of Nineveh, if God should not forgive the murderer, if God should not extend mercy to the rapist, if God should not show compassion toward to guilty sinner – then why should I expect him to do those things…with me?

The story of Jonah is about more than a big fish. It’s about a big God with a big love.