“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
The story of Jonah appears to be a rebuke against those in Israel who rejected the idea that God’s mercy was universal and would be extended to nations outside the Chosen People, and even to their enemies.
Jonah is sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s biggest enemies. At first he refuses to go there to preach repentance and flees by ship in the opposite direction, but he is thrown overboard during a storm by the crew and swallowed by a giant fish that delivers him to his assignment.
Once in Nineveh, Jonah does barely a perfunctory job of announcing repentance, but to his surprise, the king and the whole population repent and are spared.
Angry that the Ninevites have not been destroyed, Jonah learns by the parable of the large plant provided to shade him, then taken away, that everything is God’s gift. If God wishes to save Nineveh, this is what God will do.
Jesus used the story of Jonah to challenge his own generation to accept an outpouring of divine Mercy, not only for itself but for everyone. The “sign of Jonah” was that even the Ninevites had recognized this, but his own people were rejecting a prophet greater than Jonah.
He adds the reminder that the Queen of the South had come all the way to Israel to meet Solomon, but his own contemporaries were rejecting one even greater than Solomon.
Today’s Gospel challenges us in much the same way. We know the scriptures. We know as well as any generation the message of Jesus calling us to accept and imitate the compassion of God for everyone. We also know that our own generation has been slow to grasp the call to justice in the treatment of the poor, immigrants and refugees. We have ignored the signs that our fragile planet is suffering from industrial pollution. We are witnessing the rise of self-interest, greed, racism and militarism on a scale that shames our nation in the eyes of the world.
If we needed a sign of God’s coming judgment, we could not find a clear and more prophetic voice that that of Pope Francis, who is calling both the church and the world back from the edge of self-destruction.
We have received the sign of Jonah. God’s mercy is there for us if we will change direction and respond to the tremendous needs so evident in our world. The turn from evil to good, like the turning of a great ship, may be difficult, but every small effort on our part can change course and destination. Lent is our time to take the wheel and first change ourselves. Then larger changes will be possible.