The Sign of Jonah

Last Updated on August 29, 2022 by GMC

Jonah Vomited from the Whale, Third century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.

16th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)

Matthew 12:38-42 

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”

What is wrong with asking for a sign? Gideon asked for a sign and received it (Judges 6:17). King Ahaz was invited by the Lord himself to ask for a sign, refused, yet received one against his will (Isaiah 8:11-23). King Hezekiah received a sign from the Lord unasked, to assure him that he would live another fifteen years and that his city would not fall to Assyria (Isaiah 38:5-8).

Before a request is even made, the Lord already knows the conditions of hearts. Gideon’s feeling of uncertainty mixed with the sincere will to obey brought upon him the Lord’s indulgence. As far as Ahaz was concerned, religion was irrelevant to politics; God had no place in his heart. In his case, asking for a sign would at least acknowledge God’s existence and relevance. Hezekiah’s spirituality was barely developed and on the verge of collapsing. Divine mercy took pity on him.

In the case of the scribes and Pharisees, the verbal request for a sign masked a deep-seated envy and hatred of Jesus in the depths of the heart. At best, the motive for seeking a sign was to confirm faith, but that motive was basically missing.

He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.”

The pagan Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba were cut to the heart by the divine wisdom offered by Israel. Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries, their hearts were amenable to divine shaping. The sign-seekers before him were only out to test and accuse him. Others were lukewarm, indifferent, and looking for a show.

Signs from Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets and kings recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures prepared the Israelites to identify the true Messiah. But aside from that, persons with hearts open to truth, goodness and beauty could not fail to recognize something “not of this world” in Jesus. Even Gentiles without any experience of the Hebrew tradition recognized “something greater” than anything the world had ever seen (e.g., the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman, and the Canaanite woman).  One miraculous healing alone transformed a community; the people of the covenant witnessed hundreds.

Recognition of divine truth requires the eye of the heart. Scriptural knowledge is a boon, but not a guarantee of faith. The head without the heart is blind.

Jesus left them with the sign of Jonah, a prefiguration of his death and resurrection, which even the disciples did not fully understand until his mission had been accomplished.

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