Everyone thinks the story of Jonah is about a fish. There is a fish in the story, but that’s not what it’s about. The story of Jonah is about forgiveness and acceptance. Jonah was a prophet in Israel who was nearing retirement. One day God interrupted his comfortable world with a command, “Go to Ninevah and cry against it.” Nineveh was the most powerful city of Jonah’s most powerful enemy. Jonah put out to sea in the opposite direction.
One little sinester word: prejudice.
Jonah harbored a seething prejudice against the Ninevites and he feared that if he did what God wanted that the Ninevites might heed his message and repent of their sins. Then God would forgive them and that would mean Jonah must forgive them.
After a three day ride in the belly of the fish Jonah finally broke and agreed to obey the Lord. Jonah picked the seaweed out of his teeth, and walked through the city of Ninevah delivering his eight word sermon with all the compassion of a hired assassin, “Yet forty days and Ninevah will be overthrown.”
Then the tired old prophet trudged up onto a hillside to watch the fireworks. The whole time he prayed that the Ninevites would ignore his sermon. They didn’t ignore his sermon. On the contrary, they heeded it and repented and ordered a national day of mourning.
All of this was too much for poor Jonah. And so he gritted his teeth and shook his fist toward heaven:
Jonah 4:2 He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
3 “So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
Jonah would rather die than forgive his enemies. Such is the nature of bitter prejudice. It’s irrational. And it must be dealt with. In fact, God will force us to deal with it. Just as he forced Jonah.
Mark Buchanan tells about the Korean pastor Paul Yonggi Cho going to speak to Japan. He said that Cho told God “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel, except Japan.”
Cho hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of Yonggi Cho’s own family during World War II.
Through a combination of a prolonged inner struggle, several direct challenges from others, and finally an urgent and starkly worded invitation, Cho felt called by God to preach in Japan . . . The first speaking engagement was to a pastors conference-a thousand Japanese pastors. Cho stood up to speak, and what came out of his mouth was this- ‘I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” And then he broke and wept. He was both brimming and desolate with hatred.
At first one, then two, then all thousand pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Yonggi Cho, knelt at his feet, and asked forgiveness for what they and their people had done to him and his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I love how we get to hear the happy ending of Cho’s story. We didn’t get to hear a happy ending to Jonah.
Did Jonah ever change how he felt? The book doesn’t say. I personally think Jonah did ultimately deal with his prejudice because we have the book of Jonah in our Bibles to read. How would we know the story of Jonah had Jonah not told us his story? And why would Jonah tell his story if his heart hadn’t changed. It is, after all, a story about the dark side of prejudice. It was a story about the dark side of Jonah.
I think God left the story unfinished because he wants us to wrestle with the choice it forces upon us.
You see, you are Jonah.
If you’ve lived long on this planet there is surely someone that has injured you. Perhaps like Jonah and Reverend Cho you allowed this injury to metastasize in your mind beyond the limits of the offense and now you see everyone like your enemy as your enemy.
That’s the dark side of prejudice.
There is only one response. You must embrace and love them just as Jesus did. Then and only then will you truly be free from the belly of the whale.