Even though Jesus spoke of Jonah, he knew that the story of Jonah was fictitious. Around the year 450 B.C. the citizens of Jerusalem resolved on protecting their children from evil practices by cutting themselves off from associating with the pagan world.
Some fifty years later an unknown holy man decided that they had gone too far in calling all of God’s non-Jewish children evil. To demonstrate God’s love for pagans, that unknown author was inspired to make up the story of Jonah.
In his story God called on Jonah to go save the people of Nineveh from their sins. But Jonah hated the people of Nineveh, and he attempted avoiding God’s commission by sailing west beyond what he thought to be the limits of God’s influence. Showing that there was no limit to his influence, God sent a great storm on Jonah’s escape ship. To save themselves from God’s wrath, the seaman threw Jonah overboard; and he went into the belly of a whale.
(When I was eight an intact whale was hauled up to St. Louis on an over-sized freight car, and my Dad brought me down to see it. I crawled into its mouth, but I saw there was no way Jonah could have got down that narrow throat.)
In the story Jonah’s whale threw him up on the shore near Jerusalem. So Jonah, obeying God, went on to Nineveh, joyfully telling the people that they were to be destroyed within forty days. When they repented and were saved, Jonah was so unhappy about it that he sat under a gourd plant to sulk. Then, when a worm ate away the plant that guarded his head from the sun he missed the plant.