A Big Fish Story

"Jonah and the Whale" by Clive James

TEXT: Jonah

The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the best known Bible stories...both inside and outside the church. But I have found it one of the more difficult stories to preach about, because modern, scientific thinkers have a tough time getting around a story about a fish swallowing a man whole and then bringing him back whole three days later.

There was a time in my life when I thought it was frightfully important to prove that the story of Jonah was true. I thought that somehow the whole Bible would fall down if a great fish couldn't possibly swallow a man and give him back whole after several days. As a result, I was never able to get to the real truth of the book...a truth that is far deeper than historical accuracy. So this morning, I want to help you learn to read Scripture and then look at the wonderful truth of the book of Jonah.

Perhaps THE most important thing I have learned about Scripture over time is that it contains more than one type of truth. There is historical truth. The Bible describes people and nations that we know to have actually lived and died. There is social truth. We discover that the Bible has passages that accurately describe the way we can successfully live in relation to one another and to our world. There is scientific truth. We see flora and fauna and geographical markers that can be found today just as the Bible describes them. There is religious truth. We see a true portrait of God and learn accurately what God wants from us and for us. And there is psychological truth. We see our own true nature...the nature we were meant to have at creation, and the nature we have drifted toward as we have lived out life across the millennia.

To my mind, the biggest single mistake that people make in reading Scripture is to assume that for the Bible to be true, it must be true in all of those ways in every single passage. Why do we do that? We don't do that in other places. When we read Aesop's fables, we can acknowledge that they speak the truth without requiring that there have been an actual fox who really tried to reach some grapes and then said he really didn't want them after all. We don't read poetry looking for scientific fact, and we don't read astronomy textbooks looking for psychological insight.

The Bible is a diverse collection of 66 very different books that were put together for religious purposes. Religious truth was the thing that they all had in common, and that is what we should look to Scripture for. So did a fish really swallow a man and spit him up three days later? I have no idea. It's possible. God made the entire universe from nothing at all, and if God wanted to have Jonah swallowed by a goldfish then I'm sure God could have managed it.

We have to be very careful in assuming God cannot do what we cannot understand or in thinking that science is dictating the rules to God rather than the other way round. If God is no bigger than our human minds or smarter than our scientific discoveries then we may as well sleep in on Sunday mornings. Faith in a God that small wouldn't be interesting enough to get up for or strong enough to sustain us when we needed it. Jonah could well be historically true.

The point I want to make is that the religious truth of the book doesn't hang on whether it actually happened. The story about King Midas can tell us the truth about our greediness without being historically true or scientifically true. If you prove that people can't turn things into gold by touching them, you haven't proved that people are not capable of being so greedy that they lose everything precious to them. It doesn't have to be true in that way. In fact, a good story can sometimes be a better way of showing truth than something factual because you can exaggerate the point so that people will understand. Jesus told such stories all the time. We call them parables. He wasn't trying to relate history in those parables, he was trying to show people the nature of God in a way that would engage people's minds and imaginations.

Which is exactly what the book of Jonah does. What child's imagination hasn't been caught by a grown man being swallowed by a giant fish? And in that moment of bright imagination, adults find they have an opportunity to teach about God. Why did a fish swallow a man? What happened next? Did he learn his lesson? Was God mad?

So with all of that in mind, what is the religious truth that we learn from Jonah? I think we learn the immeasurable patience of God. The story starts out with God's patience with the town of Nineveh. We are told it is a wicked town, and God wants to send Jonah to set them straight. God doesn't have to do that. God could simply flatten the town...that's God's prerogative. But no...God wants to give them another chance and calls for Jonah.

Jonah's response is blatant disobedience. God says, "Go to Nineveh." Not only does Jonah refuse to go, he gets on a boat and sets sail in the exact opposite direction. Now if Jonah had been working for me, he would have found himself on the unemployment line. But God is patient. God isn't a doormat...Jonah is well aware that God is not pleased and has three rather miserable days to think about it...but God is still with Jonah and still wants him to do the job. Being in the belly of a whale and then the rather nasty exit from the belly of the whale may have been unpleasant, but Jonah expected to die when he told his shipmates to throw him overboard. The whale is yet another sign of God's patience and desire to save.

God calls Jonah again, "Jonah, go to Nineveh." This is so true. God does not give up on us, no matter how obstinate we are. God calls. If we run away, God brings us back...then calls again. And again. And again, until we either respond or die in our obstinance. God won't force us to go, but God won't quit calling us either. God is always willing to forget the thousand times we have said "No," and rejoice in the one time we say, "Yes."

This time Jonah decides he would be smart to get up and go. But his heart is not in it. Jonah hates the people of Nineveh. He doesn't really have a change of heart, he just doesn't want to see what God might do with him next if he refused. He goes and preaches to the people, hoping the whole time that it won't work and the people will be damned. You wouldn't think his preaching would be terribly effective. But it was. The whole city responds to the Word of God and repents.

Back in the fourth century a heresy arose in the North African church called Donatism. The Donatists believed that if the priest was not pure then the sacraments were not effective. The Donatists would have told Jonah to stay out of Nineveh until his heart was in it. They believed that if you preached for the wrong reasons or if you had sin in your life, everything you did would be null and void. The truth of Jonah stands against that. He preached to them with hate in his heart and the people were saved anyway. The story reminds us that it is God who does the work, and it is God's job to make sure that our work is effective. God can take even the very worst we have to offer and save a city with it.

In our own tradition we have the example of John Wesley, who eventually founded the Methodist Church. John Wesley was a priest in the church of England in the early 1700s. He was a priest and a missionary to the Colonies, but he admitted to a friend that he had no real faith. "What shall I do?" he asked his friend. "I'm preaching something I don't even believe." His friend's answer is famous. "Preach faith until you have it," said the friend, "and then preach faith because you have it." So that's what Wesley did.

Finally Wesley did find real faith, but in the meantime, others came to faith through John Wesley, even when he didn't mean what he was saying. God can use us whether our motives are right or not.

But God's patience with Jonah is not done. Jonah comes back from Nineveh furious at God for saving the city. God calls him on it. "Is it right for you to be angry?" asks God. Jonah doesn't answer, he just goes outside and sulks. If I hadn't already fired Jonah for insubordination, I'm sure my patience would have ended here. Jonah is a pouting, whining kid. But God is patient and kind and firm. God is not going to lose with this little tantrum of Jonah's. So God teaches Jonah a lesson. It's uncomfortable...just like the belly of the whale was...but it gives Jonah, and therefore the rest of us, a glimpse of the heart of God.

God causes a bush to grow over Jonah, and Jonah is grateful for its shade. Then, just as quickly, God kills the bush and Jonah is left in the scorching heat. "What gives?" says Jonah. "I want my bush back!" God drives the point home. "Look, Jonah. You're worried over this bush, that you didn't plant and you didn't tend. If you can be concerned about the bush that you had nothing to do with, shouldn't I be concerned about the people of Nineveh, that I made and have tended? There's 120,000 of them Jonah, and they are all clueless, and there are a bunch of animals, too. Shouldn't I care about them, Jonah?"

This is where the book ends, with God's statement about his care for the people of Nineveh -- people who were not Jews -- they were Assyrians, pagans. But God wants to be in relationship with them, just like God wants to keep his relationship with Jonah, just like God wants to be in relationship with us.

I love the portrait of God in the book of Jonah, and I have found it to be a true portrait of the God I have come to know. The book tells us of a God who is infinitely patient with our faults, even with our disobedience. But this God is not a pushover. God doesn't just keep saying, "Oh, that's OK, but please do it the next time I ask." God takes action to see that the work gets done and that rebellion is changed to compliance. But the action is no harsher than it needs to be to get the job done.

And in the midst of it all, God takes the time to teach...to really make sure that Jonah understands why saving the city is important. It's not vital to the task that Jonah understand. The task is done despite Jonah's attitude and the people are saved before the lesson is taught. But God cares as much for the whining Jonah as for the wicked city and works to change his heart. God will not rest until both Nineveh and Jonah are saved.

I don't know about you, but the book of Jonah makes me rest easier at night. When I am foolish, God is patient. When I am sulking in a corner because I'm mad at God, God will come and patiently teach me about love. When my motives are less than pure or my faith is weak, God will use me anyway and will make my very weakness effective. God may well give me time in the belly of a whale to think about my motives, but when I am ready to respond, God will bring me out and allow me to do the work.

If you were writing a story to teach others about the nature of God, what would you write? Do you know the God of Jonah...the God who is patient, yet firm...determined, yet loving? What Scripture asks is not that we believe a fish swallowed a man but that the strong and compassionate God described in Jonah is a true portrait of the God who made us. As Jonah says even in his whining, "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

Faith in God asks that we believe that. Faith in Jesus asks that we seek to become like that ourselves. Jonah was angry that God had compassion on the people of Nineveh. Aren't we like Jonah sometimes? Is there anybody that you would be annoyed to discover living next to you in Heaven? A person of another faith? A person of a different sexual orientation? Someone who hurt you? Hitler? Have you ever been angry at God's compassion? Have you ever spent three days in the belly of a whale? Then don't push it.


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

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