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The Sign of Jonah

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew 12:38-39

Many of us were taught the story of the prophet Jonah as children in Sunday School. It is recorded in the short Old Testament book of his name. God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to warn them of their impending destruction because of their wicked ways. Jonah hated the Ninevites and believed they deserved to die. Because he did not want them to have an opportunity to repent, he boarded a ship headed away from Nineveh. God caused a great storm that threatened to break the ship apart. The others on the ship were terrified and wondered who was responsible for this calamity. Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed his God, who was causing the storm to punish him. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, which they did, and the storm abated. Instead of drowning, however, a “large fish” [1] swallowed Jonah, where he remained for three days and three nights. Jonah repented in the belly of the fish, and God had the fish spew him out onto dry land. God, again, told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of their impending destruction. He went, provided the warning, the people heeded his words, turned from their evil ways, and “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.”[2]

Jonah was angry with God as this was exactly what he feared would happen. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites destruction was a right and just punishment. Instead, God showed mercy to this most undeserving of people. Jonah confessed his reason for trying to flee from God’s command: “…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Whether one reads the story of Jonah literally or allegorically, the lesson is the same: God’s actions and purposes do not always fall in line with what we believe is best or just. God will be who God will be, unapologetically.

In the context of the story of Jonah, what does Jesus mean by saying “No sign will be given to (this evil and adulterous generation) except the sign of the prophet Jonah”?[4] It is an interesting question with a number of possible answers. First, when God wants something done, it will be done whether we do it willingly or grudgingly. If we run in another direction, we may find ourselves swallowed by a metaphorical fish and spit up on the very ground where we were directed to go. Therefore, one sign of Jonah is that God’s will will be done, with or without our enthusiastic participation.

Another telling sign of Jonah has to do with God’s inexplicable grace. The people of Niveveh were not good people, at least not by the standards of the day. According to the story, and consistent with other biblical stories, God had every reason to destroy them. Like a benevolent guardian, however, God wanted to warn them of their impending demise and give them another opportunity to redeem themselves. Here is another sign of Jonah: God gives second and third chances, regardless of how we feel about it.

A third sign from the story of Jonah is God’s love for us, even when we are unloving. Jonah fell into a significant sulk after the redemption of Nineveh. He was angry with God, but God understood and loved him, anyway.

Finally, Jesus says that only the evil ask for a sign, as if they need to see a miracle before they decide to change their ways. In the story of Jonah, however, God sent an unwilling prophet to give a reluctant message of repentance. For whatever reason, the people heard and heeded Jonah’s words. Sometimes, even when we feel we need a divine sign, the Spirit moves within us to nudge us in a direction closer to God.

Even though the Matthew passage seems to imply the sign of Jonah is one of judgment and punishment for sin, consistent with many passages from Matthew’s telling, the final message is one of grace. Ultimately, the sign of Jonah is one of love and redemption, and that is the sign given by Jesus.

This is the 15th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Jonah 1:17

[2] Jonah 3:10

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Matthew 12:39

 

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