Luke 11: 29 – 32 The sign of Jonah
As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
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The teaching recounted by St Luke is also included in St Matthew’s gospel, where it includes the story of Jonah and the whale. This is what St Matthew says:
“(Jesus) answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ ”
St Matthew then resumes the teaching in the same words as St Luke.
In brief, the story of Jonah is this:
Nineveh was a huge pagan city, an enemy of Israel. God tells Jonah to go to the city and prophesy that it will be destroyed unless it repents. Jonah is terrified. Surely the Ninevites will just laugh at him, beat him and kill him? He buys a place on board a ship going in the opposite direction; he tries to flee from God.
While Jonah is on the boat, far out to sea, God raises a mighty storm that threatens to sink the vessel. Jonah confesses that he is the cause of the storm. At first the sailors try to row the boat to safety, but the storm intensifies. At Jonah’s urging, the sailors throw him into the sea. The storm passes and the waves quieten.
Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, and he remains in the fish for three days and nights, before being vomited onto the shore.
Once again, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he goes. He preaches his call to repentance, and the whole city, from the king to the humblest inhabitant, repents in sackcloth and ashes.
St Matthew, in this passage of his gospel, is concerned to draw the parallel between the death, entombment and resurrection of Jesus and Jonah’s miraculous experience in the great fish. Just as Jonah was in the fish’s belly, as good as dead for three days and three nights, before being released alive, so Jesus was dead and in the tomb for three days and three nights before being raised to life by the power of God. The sign of Jonah that will be given to us all is the resurrection of Jesus.
St Luke, by contrast, says that the sign of Jonah is that when Jonah preached to the Ninevites they repented with deep and sincere contrition, despite not following God. He changes the emphasis of the story by omitting the account of the great fish. The focus of the story is now on the “wicked generation”. Luke is saying that in demanding a sign, the Jewish leaders are refusing to believe in Jesus. Just as in the days of Jonah, the Israelites will be humiliated because the message of God’s mercy that they are rejecting will be preached to non-Jews, who will repent and be saved. This is a very important theme throughout St Luke’s gospel, because Luke was a missionary to the Gentiles.
For us today, the message that comes through strongly is that the basis of our faith is the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised then our faith is in vain. But – praise God – Jesus was raised to life, and our faith is founded upon a rock!
Thank you that you raised Jesus to life, and that he is at your right hand in heaven. Please continually increase my faith so that I may draw closer to him.
In Jesus’ name, Amen