The book of Jonah often gets associated with a large fish. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can detract us from the main point of the story. Jonah is a subversive story aimed at exposing the worst tendencies that form in God’s people, yet at the same time reveals God’s extravagant love for his people and those who are outside the family of God.
In the opening lines of this book, Jonah blatantly runs as far as he can away from God’s command to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. Up until this point in human history, there wasn’t a more violent and oppressive group that the Ancient Near East had seen. Known for skinning alive their victims and prisoners, Assyrians were to be feared. As far as God’s people were concerned, Assyria would be the empire that would come to wipe out ten of the most northern tribes - they no longer exist. Assyria is enemy number one.
So when Jonah is commanded by God to preach God’s message to Assyria, you might think Jonah was scared or afraid. Perhaps he was. But what is interesting is that if you keep reading the rest of the story all the way through chapter four, we find the reason why Jonah runs away from the call of God. (By the way, chapter 4 seems to be missing from virtually every children’s bible. The story is vastly different without chapter 4).
In the last chapter of the story, Jonah complains to God and reveals why he ran away at the beginning of the story. He essentially accuses God for being too gracious and too compassionate and would rather die than see the Assyrians receive God’s love and mercy.
Jonah doesn’t run away because he’s scared. He runs away because he is full of racial prejudice. He runs away because he thinks his tribe is better than ‘that tribe over there.’ His kind are in, but them over there - they’re the outsiders and they have no part in God’s redemptive plan. Jonah’s pride, nationalism, and racism reveal his true motive for running away. His dislike of “the other” is motivating him to withhold grace and compassion. He has too narrow of a vision of what God in his love wants to do.
What the author of Jonah wants us to see is that this tendency can easily form inside our own minds and lives. When we elevate our kind, our tribe, our race over and against another we give into a dark demonic power that is antithetical to The Way of Jesus. Paul tells the ancient church community in Ephesus that King Jesus has and is breaking down barriers that once divided us and is creating new types of human beings; humans that serve and love one another despite ethnic, cultural or racial differences (Ephesians 2). In King Jesus we are invited into this multi-cultural family and kingdom where fear and disdain for “the other” and “outsider” is no more. All are welcome to turn and follow this Jesus and his way of being more human. Jonah misses out, but the invitation is to see that Jesus has gone after us, the outsider, the other, the enemy, and is inviting us to participate in this mission of grace.