In order to fully understand any parable or story, you must first identify and analyze the primary characters.
The Biblical story of Jonah is no different.
Most people associate this story with Jonah and his really big fish. While Jonah himself is indeed one of the story’s primary characters, the fish—although often highlighted the most in the re-telling of this story—is only a secondary character.
To truly grasp the entirety of Jonah’s story and its underlying applications, we have to identify and analyze the second main character besides Jonah—the Assyrian people.
The Assyrian people were a nation characterized for their brutality. Their behavior towards neighboring nations was mean…it was harsh…it was downright criminal—in fact we could say that they terrorized anyone nearby who wasn’t an Assyrian citizen.
God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were among the group of nations terrorized by the Assyrians. They invaded their cities. They attacked their people. They destroyed their lands. It was a bad situation to say the least.
Now that we’ve identified the two primary characters, let’s go back and analyze the story of Jonah again with fresh eyes (FYI: I encourage you to pull out your Bible and reread this story again when you get a chance).
Our story begins in Jonah 1:1-2 with Jonah getting instructions from God to go preach to the city of Nineveh.
“Ok, God. Go Preach. Cool.”
However, there’s only one GIANT problem with God’s instructions…Jonah is an Israelite and Nineveh is the capital city—the heart and soul—of the Assyrian empire.
Because Jonah is human just like us, he had to have thought: “If I go preach to people who’ve done nothing but bad to me and my country, it’s a possibility that they could repent and get in God’s favor and I REFUSE to be a part of assisting in any way with doing anything good for the Assyrians.”
So what did he do? He got on a boat determined to sail to a city as far away as he could have on the map of the world during his day and time!
Now I’m quite sure that at the time that Jonah’s story first began to be shared orally in ancient Israel, other Israelis would have applauded Jonah for leaving town and would have probably refused to help the Assyrians too.
So why was THIS story told over so many centuries? With so many ancient fables and tales to choose from, why was THIS particular one written down by someone and even eventually included in the Holy Scriptures?
Was it to force us to figure out how a fish could swallow up someone alive? NO! The writer had much more in mind.
You see Jonah is supposedly one of the GOOD guys. And the Assyrians are the really, really BAD guys.
And just like in Hollywood scripts (or in made up modern parables), something inside of our human makeup tells us—just like it would have told Jonah—that good things are supposed to happen to good people.
And really bad things are supposed to happen to really bad people…WHY?
BECAUSE THEY DESERVE IT!!!!!!!!
But grace….But for God giving people things that they don’t deserve…
You see the Assyrians didn’t deserve forgiveness…they didn’t deserve the right to repent.
The hit-and-run driver doesn’t deserve to receive loan assistance…especially not from the very people he’s been horrible to.
So let me ask you…
Do you ever feel like your spouse doesn’t deserve _________ ? After all, you both know that they did _________…
Or maybe your mom or your dad didn’t do __________. Do you ever feel like they don’t qualify to receive __________…
The writer of Jonah challenges all of us to wrestle with and find our own answers to these two questions:
“Can I forgive someone who’s done me wrong, even if they haven’t first shown remorse or changed their behavior and opinion towards me?”
“Am I willing to be a channel of God’s love and grace towards people that offend me?”
Maybe you’ve never gotten on a boat with sailors and run from God…
But are you running from a phone call that you need to make?
Are you running from the very thought of forgiving someone because you feel that if you forgive them, they may never get the bad that you think they deserve?
When Jonah finally does make it to Nineveh and preaches to the Assyrians, they all repent and pray to God for forgiveness…and He does! —Which ticks Jonah off so much that he asks God to take his own life.
Whenever you haven’t truly forgiven someone, it’s often challenging emotionally to see something good happening to them.
God challenged Jonah to forgive.
Jesus took it a step further. He challenged us…
To Do Good To…
To pray for those who speak evil of and persecute us.
There’s a lot we can learn from Jonah and his story.
It’s a story bigger than just a fish.
It’s a story of crime…
a story of criminals…
a story of grace…
a story of forgiveness.
And forgiveness is where the story of Jonah ends and where real Christian maturity for each of us begins.