Some of you will know that I live on an island. On this island much fishing is accomplished. Whether for sport of profit, fishing has been an integral part of life on Ocracoke for hundreds of years. Wherever people fish, one will find “fish stories”. Dramatic tales of wrestling fish from the surf or into the back of a small boat are a part of life in fishing communities. Some of these stories are true, others exaggerated, and a few are outright lies. Such is the nature of the fish story. The fishing story doesn’t need to be true in order to make a larger moral point. Because, so often, the fishing story has little to do with the actual fish; it’s about the adventure, the journey, and the events which surround the fishing. The story recorded in the Book of Jonah is one such fish story.
Let me say this from the beginning: do I believe the story of Jonah is factually true? No. I don’t believe a man was swallowed by a large fish, survived, and was vomited to safety some three days later. Do I also believe this same man went and preached to the people of Nineveh and converted the king of Babylon’s largest city? No, not really. I do believe this a fish story and as such, it’s not about the fish. The story of Jonah, the whale, and his time in Nineveh is a tale which wants the reader to ask a few key questions.
1. What does this story say about God?
2. What does the story say about us?
3. What does this story say about how God feels about the people we hate?
4. What does this story say about the limits of God’s love?
Is the writer of Jonah trying to convey the history of an actual fish, man, and trip to Nineveh? No, he’s not. Like Jesus, the author is offering us a parable so we might better understand how we fit in to what God is already doing.
1. What does this story say about God? God has an expansive view of our abilities and potential. God see us in ways we are unable to see ourselves.
2. What does this story say about us? It says we think we know more than God and can make better decisions about the fate of people than the creator of the universe. It says that the only thing which makes us take God’s love for other people seriously are threats to our safety, comfort, and security. When we feel comfortable, safe, and secure we are less likely to be compassionate, loving, or benefit of the doubt giving to anyone, especially God.
3. What does this story say about how God feels about the people we fear and hate? Jonah’s story is one that insults our sensibilities and turns our prejudices upside down. Who are the Ninevehites? The remains of Nineveh are in present day northern Iraq. They were the people most despised and detested by the Israelites. Their religious practices differed from the Israelites. They were warriors who had conquered great swathes of land. In Jonah’s eyes (and those of his countrymen) the Ninevehites were brutal heathens who deserved no mercy or attention. None of that mattered to God. God saw value in the people that Jonah viewed as worthless. Jonah had one Nineveh to confront. We, (the west, Christianity) have a whole list of Nineveh’s.
Nineveh is Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa, Paris, Oslo, Berlin, Ferguson, and Staten Island. Those are all places that seem to bring out the worst in humanity these days. These are places where many have given up, written off, and decided the people who live in these areas aren’t worth our love, compassion, or understanding. New Nineveh’s are created every day. In the back of our minds, we (like Jonah) have decided these people are evil, these people are bad, and they must die. And as Jonah did, when people begin to discuss compromise, coexisting, and compassion people get angry. We seek our tiny shrubs and woefully bemoan how wrong it is that God is being God and our rules seem to be ignored when it comes to running humanity. This God who has sent us to Nineveh wants to give everyone compassion, the benefit of the doubt, and kill no one. Doesn’t this God know that his way isn’t the American way?
4. What does this story say about the limits of God’s love? The only limits on God’s love are the ones we create, try to hand to God, and then become disappointed when we realize God doesn’t deal in limits, especially when it comes to love.