The sign of Jonah

By Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

[Here’s a commentary on the Gospel Reading for Monday Week 28 -- Luke 11:29-32. I wrote it sometime last year for the Extraordinary Month of Mission (October 2019) upon the request of the Propaganda Fide].

“This generation asks for a sign.”

What Jesus said about his generation can also be said of our generation, be it the Generation X, the Generation Y of millennials or simply the older generation called senior citizens. If we used to read our daily luck through zodiac signs, our generation today speculates for signs in the stock market, in investments, in business deals, and the like.

Like that generation of Jesus, we are also a generation of signs. We need signs to survive and to be entertained. Just imagine a mute and deaf person who can communicate to others through the sign language. Such is not only for those hard of hearing but even for children in general. How many mothers today use a sign language in storytelling to “entertain” their children?

It is common to express difficult and abstract concepts through signs. Thus, to explain better and persuade us to respond to his call to holiness, Pope Francis, in the Gaudate et Exsultate, enumerate five signs of holiness: (1) inner strength in the Lord, (2) a joyful sense of humor, (3) passionate courage; (4) living in a community; and (5) constant prayer.

The Gospel reading (Luke 11:29-32), appropriately titled, The Demand for a Sign (by the New American Bible, rev. ed.), mentions “this generation” in no less than four times in this short passage. What an irony that “this generation” is condemned by two bygone generations and gentile at that. Jesus displays a sense of good humor and wit here and more humor when he replies, “but no sign is to be given it except the sign of Jonah” (v. 29). To those familiar with the story of Jonah, Jesus could have spoken tongue-on-cheek.

Jonah’s humorous life-story begins with his name yȏnâ, meaning “dove”, a bird that is associated with stupidity (cf. Hos 7:11). While all around him are “great”—great city of Nineveh, great wind, great storm, great fear of the Lord and great fish, his preferred life is not great at all but one of “going down”—he goes down to Joppa, down to the ship, goes down to the hold of the ship, down to a “deep sleep,” down to the sea and finally down into the belly of the great fish.

God must be playing a joke on him.

He sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. The taste of Jonah must have been awful, the rabbis joke, that it vomited him afterwards. If the Ninevites will do a teshuva (repentance), that would be the greatest joke of his life. Jonah, being a prophet, knows that would never happen. Nineveh is Nineveh (cf. the Book of Nahum, long oracle against Nineveh). What can a small-time prophet do for a “great city” like Nineveh? And yes, God is God—”of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jon 1:9), thus unchangeable.

But the Ninevites repent and God changes his mind. So, Jonah wants to die (4:3), out of shame perhaps, and makes another death-wish over a withered cucumber plant (4:8). He forgets that he should not take life seriously for God is full of surprises. Pope Francis in one of his homilies describes this attitude as the Jonah syndrome.

What is the sign of Jonah?

The crowd must have been asking this as much as we are.

Is it Jesus’ death and resurrection (as in Matthew)? Is it his preaching? His message? His apocalyptic warning?

Notice, however, that the demand for a sign shows a crowd that is getting bigger but more malicious. At the end of this chapter the plot to catch Jesus thickens (cf. 11:54).

Amid these, however, Jesus manages to display his sense of humor, just like the unnamed woman from the crowd who bursts into the scene and felicitates the “womb and the breasts” of Jesus’ mother (11:27-28).

There is also an irony on the “resurrections” of the Ninevites and the Queen of the South (cf. 11:31-32).

By saying that there is here “greater than Solomon” and “greater than Jonah,” Jesus answers the crowd’s and our question too. What sign should be greater than a personal encounter with Jesus?

Jesus offers freely to “this generation” that rare opportunity to encounter him, the Son of Man who is “the kingdom of God upon you” (11:20). It is an encounter of joy. “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Lk. 5:34).

One who has experienced such kind of encounter is Paul who, in the First Reading (Rom 1:1-7), announces himself as an apostle who is set apart for the Gospel [the good news]. For Paul, the good news is the Christ-event in which he first came to believe through his encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul owes this life-changing event, and consequently the apostleship, to “grace” (charis), which has empowered him to do the mission for which he is called: “to bring about the obedience of faith” even “among the Gentiles” (Rom 1:5). It is not wide of the mark then to say that the sign of Jonah can also be the personal encounter with Jesus, itself a moment of grace that may enable one to do good. The Collect reflects this dynamic when we pray that the grace of the Lord “at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works.”

An encounter, however, is a two-way process, not one way. “God proposes, man [woman] disposes,” as the adage goes. For an encounter to be meaningful and fruitful, the person, not a puppet, cooperates with that divine grace. This is alluded to by Jesus when he contrasts the Ninevites against “this generation.” When they heard the preaching of Jonah, however half-hearted he was as preacher, they took upon themselves, starting with king, to do something to avert God’s wrath. In like manner, the Queen of the South took pains to travel from “the ends of the earth” just to listen to the Solomon’s wisdom.

The crowd, in contrast. are privileged to personally encounter Jesus—they heard his teachings and witnessed the many signs that he did and continues to do: exorcisms, healings, raising the dead, calming the storm, feeding the five thousand others (15 miracles all in all beginning from start of his ministry in chapter 4 up to this point). What more signs should Jesus do? The signs are everywhere and the greatest of which is a personal encounter with him, a privilege that the original readers of Luke did not have, nor we have it today. They miss the boat (to Nineveh). Only one, ironically, recognizes the sign—that unnamed woman from the crowed calls the mother of Jesus macaria, “happy” or “blessed”. Indicating the proper response to the sign of Jonah, Jesus in turn replies: “Happy [macaroi] are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (11:27-28).

The theme of encounter with Jesus as a sign and the human effort to recognize it is best illustrated by Luke in his story of the Risen Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35). The Risen Jesus takes the initiative to join the two disciples who are so distraught that they could not even recognize him anymore. In their conversation with the stranger on the road, they must have felt something not so strange from this person (later described as “hearts on fire,” v. 32). So, they exert effort to let the stranger spend the night with them. At supper, the stranger “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30)—familiar signs. Their eyes then are opened (a divine passive) and recognize the Risen Jesus.

While it is true that Jesus only gives the sign of Jonah to this generation, can he not humor us with more signs occasionally?

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