The Sign of Jonah - Preaching Repentance

Homily for Wednesday Week 1 of Lent

by Fr. Tommy Lane

No sign will be given to this generation, says Jesus, except the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:28). He doesn’t explain to his listeners what the sign of Jonah is. Would his listeners have asked themselves questions afterwards wondering what was the sign of Jonah? We can imagine they would not have supposed that the sign of Jonah was Jonah’s presentation in the Old Testament as the most disobedient of the prophets; when God told him to go east, he went west instead. The sign of Jonah was surely not the severe dose of gastroenteritis that he gave to that poor whale; so much so, if you will pardon me saying so, the whale simply could not stomach him anymore and threw him up! Jesus’ contemporaries surely would not have considered the sign of Jonah to be his anger when the Ninevites, Israel’s enemy, did in fact repent and were saved, at least in the Book of Jonah. In Matthew’s version of Jesus giving Jonah as a sign to his generation, Jesus explains what he means; the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights like Jonah in the belly of the whale (Matt 12:40). However here in Luke the sign of Jonah seems to be something else. Jonah was a foreigner sent to the Ninevites to preach repentance just as Jesus was sent to preach to his generation. In the Book of Jonah the Ninevites had a choice to make when they heard the preaching of Jonah and Jesus’ generation also has a choice to make when they hear his preaching. Solomon enjoyed God’s wisdom and the queen of the South, the queen of Sheba, responded positively (Luke 11:31). The Ninevites, the queen of Sheba and this generation have something in common; they are at the receiving end of God’s word and wisdom. The Ninevites and the queen of Sheba responded; what will the generation of Jesus do? If they do not repent, judgment will befall them and they will be condemned by the Ninevites and the queen of Sheba at Judgment (Luke 11:31-32). The reason is because when one hears the word of God one cannot remain neutral any more. Hearing the word of God demands a response. When you hear the word of God you cannot remain sitting on the fence. Hearing the word of God entails making a decision. Cardinal Ratzinger in his book entitled God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, wrote

Wherever Christ has been present, afterward it cannot be just as if nothing had happened. There, where he has laid his hand, something new has come to be. This points us back again to the fact that being a Christian as such is to be transformed, that it must involve repentance and not just some embellishment added onto the rest of one’s life. It reaches down into our depths and renews us from those very depths. The more we ourselves as Christians are renewed from the root up, the better we can understand the mystery of transformation. Finally, this capacity things have for being transformed makes us more aware that the world itself can be transformed, that it will one day as a whole be the New Jerusalem, the Temple, vessel of the presence of God.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2012

This homily was delivered in St. John's Seminary, Boston.