A Whale of a Tale that Misses the Point

Last week I finally took down the remaining Christmas decorations, including this glass whale ornament. It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jonah, which most people know but few understand. What is the actual point of the story? You may recall that Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim that God is going to wipe out the city unless they repent of their thuggish ways. Jonah, an Israelite, loathes these violent oppressors and hops on a ship going the opposite direction.

Soon a whale of a storm arises, and Jonah fesses up that he's the likely cause of it. The sailors reluctantly throw him overboard, and the seas calm. If not for a great fish swallowing him whole and subsequently puking him onto dry land, Jonah would have drown.

After cleaning himself off, Jonah trudges to Nineveh and delivers the message. Shockingly, the king and the entire city believe Jonah's message and repent of their wicked ways.  God decides to have mercy on the people of Nineveh and does not destroy them.

The End, right? Not so fast. There's one final chapter, and without it, we easily miss the punchline.

After delivering his message,  Jonah sets up camp just outside the city, finding shelter under a fast-growing shade plant. And Jonah starts to pout: "God I should have known you'd do something like this. I wanted fireworks. I wanted you to exterminate them. But God, You're a soft touch. You're gracious, compassion and overflowing with love. This isn't fair!" Jonah grumbles himself to sleep.

The next morning, Jonah awakens to discover that a worm has eaten his beloved shade plant. Jonah rails against God over the plant: "I'm so mad. I wish I were dead."

God's reply: "You're this worked up over a plant? And yet you gripe at me because I have compassion on 120,000 people and their animals? Get a grip!"

The story of Jonah is really a mirror. Insert your own loathsome group for Nineveh: bigots, terrorists, Republicans, Democrats...and see how the tale morphs if you then put yourself in Jonah's place. However far your mercy extends, the message is to stretch compassion and forgiveness until no one is left out, especially your enemies.

It's easy to make this a miracle story about a big fish that saves a man by swallowing him whole. It's far more difficult to take a serious look at the limits of our compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps that's why few people make it to the final chapter.