People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
The word of the Lord was addressed to Jonah a second time.
2 ‘Up!’ he said, ‘Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it as I shall tell you.’
3 Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to cross it took three days.
4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city and then proclaimed, ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.’
5 And the people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes.
7 He then had it proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles, as follows: ‘No person or animal, herd or flock, may eat anything; they may not graze, they may not drink any water.
8 All must put on sackcloth and call on God with all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil ways and violent behaviour.
9 Who knows? Perhaps God will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath, so that we shall not perish.’
10 God saw their efforts to renounce their evil ways. And God relented about the disaster which he had threatened to bring on them, and did not bring it.
Gospel, Luke 11:29-32
29 The crowds got even bigger and he addressed them, ‘This is an evil generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah.
30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be a sign to this generation.
31 On Judgement Day the Queen of the South will stand up against the people of this generation and be their condemnation, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, look, there is something greater than Solomon here.
32 On Judgement Day the men of Nineveh will appear against this generation and be its condemnation, because when Jonah preached they repented; and, look, there is something greater than Jonah here!
Although the extract from Jonah is there to connect with the New Testament passage, emphasising Jonah as the sign for repentance, it’s good to remember that the book of Jonah is a satirical fiction, about a prophet who initially refuses to be a sign of repentance, because he is fed up with God’s habit of forgiveness: Jonah wants Nineveh wasted. The reader and Jonah know of God’s forgiveness before the Ninevehns repent.
Jesus’ phrase, “the sign of Jonah” is not meant as a threat; he means that the “son of man”, that is, Jesus and the people of the kingdom, will be a sign requiring repentance from his own generation. The sign is given in confidence of God’s readiness to forgive.
Luke, in fact, misses out a verse in Matthew’s reporting of the same incident (Matthew 12:39), which compares Jesus’ death and resurrection with Jonah’s three- day sojourn in the whale. The Jonah who appears before the people of Nineveh has been swallowed for three days by a whale; the risen Jesus, who has been swallowed for three days by death, will be the ultimate sign demanding repentance from his contemporaries.
Luke omits this phrase because he wants to present the whole life and ministry of Jesus as the supreme sign. Solomon was the wises of mortals, but something greater than Solomon is here. Jonah was famed for turning round the citizens of Nineveh, but something greater than Jonah is here. For Luke, that greater thing is Jesus and his people.
The traditional placing together of these passages may reflect a theology of repentance, which sees God as forever demanding sackcloth and ashes, and Christian piety as always penitential. That is far from Jesus’ teaching: he wasn’t interested in piety, but in a complete “change of life.” Once people had begun this change, they could share the joy of being “something greater” than Solomon or Jonah.
In Lent we are not asked to be miserable or even pious, but rather to examine our lives, to see if we are still making the great refusal of allegiance to the powers of self and world, ready to go with one whose wisdom and message are incomparable.