When we were children in Sunday school, we heard the story of Jonah, which centered on a disobedient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish while trying to make a getaway. When adults told us that story, maybe they hoped we would be impressed by the scary cost of disobedience and not even think about disobeying our parents and teachers, let alone God.
The story is so much more than that. God had a message He wanted to send to some enemies of His people. The Ninevites were no joke. In Jonah’s time, to send an Israelite with a message to the Ninevites was tantamount to sending a victim of 9/11 with a message to Osama bin Laden. Yet this amazing God, who is far above all tribal or ethnic deities, still wanted to get a message to a group of people most of us would have written off.
He called on an Israelite to take the message, but Jonah didn’t like the assignment, didn’t like the Ninevites and couldn’t understand why God did. At first glance, the message seems rather severe: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it, because I have seen how wicked its people are” (Jonah 1:2). But right away, Jonah recognized the grace of God in this message. His only reason for sending the message was to give His enemies a fair warning and chance to repent.
In contrast to the Ninevites, who did repent in response to God’s message, when Jonah was confronted with the fact that his own disobedience was about to cause the death of the mariners in the boat who had done nothing to him, he did not ask for forgiveness from God or man. He drew himself up to his full height, wrapped his religious robes around him and announced, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land” (Jonah 1:9) Astounding! He might have been a Hebrew, something for which he could claim no credit, but he certainly did not worship the Lord God of heaven.
Jonah’s sniveling self-absorption was enough to make even a healthy fish throw him up. He tried to change the byline of God’s story and make it about himself and his misery.
God still is looking for people He can send with a message of His grace to those who are His enemies. He still is calling us to go to Al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Boko Haram in Nigeria. We have been swallowed by our nice, comfortable, safe American Christianity, which takes us in the other direction.
Thomas John Carlisle has written a poem entitled “You! Jonah!” It ends with the following words:
“And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to His way of loving.”
Rayman is the academic dean of Coastal Georgia School of Missions and a member of the United Ministerial Alliance of Liberty County.