28th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)
While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”
Solomon and Jonah were larger than life legends in the Hebrew tradition. Their names and stories evoked a rich and colorful tapestry of images and associations.
Solomon’s wisdom was “as vast as the sand on the seashore” and ambassadors from every corner of the earth flocked to hear his wisdom (I Kings 5:10-14). The original Jerusalem Temple constructed under his reign staggered the nations with its magnificent design and carvings in splendid gold, silver, bronze, stone, cedar and pine. The king’s palace, which took almost twice as long to build, bedazzled visitors with its opulence and grandeur.
When the queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s great wisdom, the house he had built, the food at his table, the seating of his ministers, the attendance and dress of his waiters, his servers, and the burnt offerings he offered in the house of the Lord, it took her breath away (I Kings 10:4-5).
Like Solomon, the prophet Jonah commanded the attention of foreigners and turned them toward Israel’s God. The “fantastic repentance of the Assyrians” that included even the animals underscored God’s great mercy and impartiality toward Jews and Gentiles alike (Jonah 3:4-10).1 The familiar story of the disobedient prophet who converted their worst enemies had an effect on the Hebrews similar to that of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. “The parable presupposes that most Jews would have regarded ‘good Samaritan’ as a contradiction in terms.”2
Solomon and Jonah had acquired mythic proportions in the Hebrew imagination. “Something greater” than the legendary king and prophet was Jesus’ way of connecting with his contemporaries and moving them toward accepting his claim of divine sonship. If a pagan queen and the idolatrous Ninevites could recognize the wisdom of the LORD, how much more should the children of Israel, Jesus lamented.
Unlike Solomon, Jesus came as a poor and meek king “riding on an ass,” and unlike Jonah, Jesus was “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Matthew 21:5; Philippians 2:8). The enduring impact of Christ’s love for humankind that has transformed lives and raised saints through the centuries more than testify to the historicity and reality of the one “greater than” Solomon and Jonah.
1 According to the Reading Guide to Jonah in The Catholic Study Bible, “The author of this passage is not concerned with historical plausibility—everyone knew that Assyria had never turned from its ‘evil way.’ The fantastic repentance of the Assyrians simply adds to the enjoyment of the tale” (RG 369).
Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. writes:
“The interpretation of the book as history has lost ground in modern times. Were history the intention of the author one would expect names (e.g. of the king of Nineveh) and details, and there would be more concern to explain the implausibilities and the series of remarkable coincidences. The climax of these is the sudden and complete conversion of the Ninevites. There is no opposition, no motivation except Jonah’s proclamation of the threat, yet a tremendous conversion of the entire population of a large city takes place—without leaving another trace in the Bible or in history—a conversion which Israel never attained realized by the people who destroyed her. The historicity of the account has been defended primarily because of Jesus’ reference to the ‘sign of Jonah’ (Matt. 12:38-42; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32); but the story existed in the OT and this was enough basis for Jesus to refer to it. Interestingly enough, the sign itself was variously interpreted in the NT era, as a comparison of Matt. with Luke shows.”
Cited from The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, edited by Charles M. Laymon (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 480.
2 The Catholic Study Bible, RG 369.