Friday, September 4, 2009

Sign of Jonah

Who would I like to see reject the Good News?

Jonah came to mind recently. And shortly thereafter, Jesus' somewhat cryptic reference to "the sign of Jonah." Before I consulted the texts, I thought, "what? prophets make giant fish vomit? What kind of sign is that?"

Of course, that's not the sign.

There are only three references to the Sign of Jonah, two in the Gospel according to Matthew (first in chapter 12, later again in chapter 16) and then a parallel saying in the Gospel according to Luke (chapter 11). (Mark 8 has a parallel, except Jesus leaves out the Jonah bit: "The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side." [NRSV] Mark had a less loquacious Jesus.)

(In case you don't know, there are a couple of handy websites for looking up Bible passages on line. For the widest number of translations, go to Bible Gateway but if you want the NRSV, you have to go to Oremus.)

The Matthew passage says the three days in the big fish prefigures the three days in the grave, but then it goes on to agree with the Luke passage that the sign has something to do with the preaching Jonah did in Nineveh.

Let's review briefly. The story of Jonah isn't about a whale, even if that's what you remember most from Sunday school. It's about a prophet who doesn't want to go and preach the word of God in Nineveh. In fact, Jonah doesn't want to preach to the Ninevites so badly that he runs from God, which lands him in the belly of a big fish for 3 days. Then the fish finds prophets hard to digest, and so Jonah ends up on a beach. God again sends Jonah to Nineveh and this time, Jonah goes. It's a message of destruction, but also a call to turn from their wicked ways. The Ninevites receive the word and repent, turn away from their wickedness. God then has compassion on them and does not destroy them. This ticks off Jonah, who apparently didn't much like Ninevites. He apparently would have preferred to see fire rain down on Nineveh. So he goes into the wilderness, pouts about the goodness of God, and almost dies for his trouble. (That'll do for now. Look up the whole book of Jonah. It's kind of fun and really pretty short.)

So, anyway, the Sign of Jonah. Jesus tells some of the Pharisees that while the Ninevites heard Jonah's message and believed, the Pharisees are being dumb by not receiving Jesus' word. They are being so dumb that the Ninevites will rise up and condemn the Pharisees on the last day, because all they had was Jonah. The Pharisees had something greater than Jonah.

Now, we don't know how Jesus would have reacted had the Pharisees repented from their ways, but we might assume, since Jesus was greater than Jonah, that he would not have gone out in the wilderness and pouted about it.

Still, I wonder if there isn't one more layer of this Sign of Jonah thing. It seems that we Christians spend a lot of time preaching to people (let's call them Ninevites), but really don't expect or want them to turn to God. After all, who wants the Ninevites in the church anyway? But then when the Ninevites hear the word of God, repent, make an effort to live godly lives, we can't quite be happy. We were kind of looking forward to seeing the Ninevites "get theirs." Even worse, while they repent and try to live godly lives, they have the gall to remain Ninevites. And we just don't like Ninevites very much. So we sit out in the wilderness, under the scorching sun, and pout and complain about God's reckless and rampant mercy.

So I ask the question again. Who would I (or you) like to see reject the Good News? Who are my (or your) Ninevites?