“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
― John Dominic Crossan
God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and prophesy to them, to tell them they were acting badly and their city would soon be destroyed as a result. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. It was full of strange and hostile people. Nineveh would not have been a very welcoming place for an outsider like Jonah. As a Lutheran friend of mine once put it, “One does not simply go to Nineveh.”
So Jonah ran away. He ran away because Nineveh scared him and the task scared him. He got on a boat and sailed in the opposite direction. But God caused a storm and Jonah ended up in the sea. In the sea a big fish swallowed him up. And in that moment, that sad, terrible, scary moment, Jonah realized he had to go back. He had to do what God asked him to do. He had to go to Nineveh. He had to tell a bunch of strangers that they were all going to die.
Whether or not it comes from God, I believe we are all called to do things in this life. Maybe it’s making art or teaching children. Maybe it’s being a good father or telling the truth when it counts. These are things of substance and meaning, things that are difficult or scary, things we know must be done but we wish someone else would do them. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably know what these things are. We know when the task before us is something we ought to do, something we are called to do. But denial is powerful, and so is fear. So we run. We run in the opposite direction of whatever that big important thing is. And we tell ourselves we’re doing right. That it doesn’t really need to be us to do that thing. We wouldn’t be any good at it anyway.
But no matter how far or fast we run, that thing is still there. We know it’s there. And sometimes we find that running puts us in a place that is so much worse than we could have imagined. A dark place. A disappointing place. A place where we feel trapped. A place we know we were never supposed to be. If we’re lucky, the terror of this place will be powerful enough to combat the denial and fear and send us back in the right direction – send us back to do the work that we were always called to do.
There is a big fish out there for all of us. It lurks in the deep. And if you let it, it will swallow you whole. Go and do the work you were meant to do.
Even Nineveh was saved.