Jonah is the classic Old Testament example of a prodigal who battled against the will of God. A prodigal isn’t always a literal runaway–some prodigals never leave the comforts of home and family. The word prodigal means wasteful, someone who wastes opportunities or relationships. A prodigal is one who in his or her heart runs from fellowship with God and wastes the riches of His blessing.
The first thing you notice in Jonah’s story is his independence. In Jonah 1:2, God said in essence, “I have a special mission for you, Jonah. I want you to go to Nineveh [the capital of the Assyrian Empire] and preach to the people because they’re sinning against Me.” Why did Jonah balk at this? Because the Jews had no greater enemies than the Assyrians. God was calling this Jewish prophet to preach a message of repentance to those his own people hated the most.
Remember the story? “Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish,” a city historians think may have been on the coast of Spain–in exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh. “He went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).
This is a key expression in the Bible: “to go from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah had been enjoying fellowship with the Father, but he wasted that fellowship. God wanted Jonah to do something; Jonah didn’t want to do it. The prophet thought the only way to escape God’s will was to run from His presence. Prodigals are like that. They don’t want to do what God clearly tells them to do in His Word, so they run.
Jonah was not the first to wander from the presence of God. In Genesis, Cain killed his brother Abel, and Genesis 4:16 says, “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
We know that God is omnipresent. Psalm 139:7 says, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” The answer is “nowhere.” However, every day people wander from the intimate presence of God. They choose to separate themselves from fellowship with God and waste their precious relationship with Him. If they stay distant too long, it’s easy for them to become prodigals. That’s what happened to Jonah. He didn’t want God to bother him anymore.
Jonah 1:4 tells us, “The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.” I’ve noticed that if I leave the intimate presence of God, there’s more trouble for me outside His presence than in it. That was Jonah’s experience, too. The ship was caught in a great storm, and the crew cast lots to discover who was to blame. The lot fell to Jonah, and they dealt with the problem by tossing him overboard.
God didn’t give up on Jonah. God prepared a massive sea creature to swallow His prophet and save him. This is a prime example of God’s grace in the life of someone who was wasting his relationship with God.
Jonah languished in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Here is where the real turnaround came in his life. In Jonah 1:3, the prophet said to himself, “You can call me, God, but I won’t go!” In chapter 2 he had to admit, “I’ve been a real fool.” And by chapter 3, Jonah prayed, “Let me have another chance. I’ll go wherever You ask.”
If you mess up your life, it doesn’t mean life is over for you. Or if you have a child who has become a prodigal and is wasting his or her life, it doesn’t mean everything is lost. If prodigals come to grips with their sin and repent of it, returning to the Lord God, He will restore them to His fellowship and give them the kind of peace, joy and fulfillment they could never find in their Tarshish.
In Luke 15, Jesus told the story of a son who wasted his inheritance with profligate living and came to himself. He determined to return to his father and beg, “Let me have another chance.” There comes a point in the life of many prodigals when God gets ahold of them, and they will do anything to come home. It could happen to your prodigal.
So what should you do if your prodigal wants to come home? The father in Luke 15 received his prodigal back with open arms, no questions asked, no prior conditions having been met. There was nothing but grace. God did the same with Jonah. He received Jonah back because He loved him.
Receiving prodigals home isn’t always a “happily ever after” story. Sometimes they return with baggage to deal with. God gave Jonah his second chance, but Jonah 4:1 says that when the Ninevites responded to his preaching, “It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.”
Can you imagine that? Maybe that’s happened to you. Your prodigal wasted his life and got into deep trouble, you bailed him out and welcomed him home, but he was still angry and ungrateful. What do you do when a prodigal is angry at those who have invited him back into their lives?
Well, how did God handle Jonah’s baggage from the belly of the fish? He was gracious even when Jonah was not grateful. God didn’t let Jonah off the hook. He orchestrated events so the prophet would have to face his anger. We have a responsibility to welcome prodigals back–but we also have to make sure they understand what caused their prodigalism. This is crucial, because prodigals are people who waste the resources and the opportunities of God, and often they cannot get those opportunities back. Sometimes we are so anxious to receive our prodigals back that their return is a matter of convenience, not conviction.
Prodigals will never abandon their wasteful habits until they are broken, until they hit rock bottom. It’s difficult to allow that to happen, but often our prodigals have to be body-slammed to the ground before they are willing to accept God’s grace. That was the experience of Jonah and the prodigal son.
So, when God has picked up your prodigals, brushed the debris from their lives and given them a desire to come home, welcome them back with open arms, but help them rebuild their lives by coming to grips with the source of their prodigalism. The God who was gracious to an ungrateful Jonah is the same Lord who is gracious to returning prodigals today. And if your prodigal isn’t as grateful as you would hope, be as gracious as God was to His prodigal, a fellow by the name of Jonah.