“There is something greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:40).
The story of Jonah was a fantastic, popular story (think Pinocchio) with a powerful religious message. It was addressed to Jews confident of their exclusive status as God’s chosen people and eager to see their enemies punished. Jonah is a reluctant prophet sent to Nineveh (Assyria) to preach repentance. He does not want to go, does not want to make this offer to Israel's worst enemy, fearful they might accept it and be saved.
So Jonah runs away, but he is shipwrecked, swallowed by a sea monster and delivered to his assigned destination. He walks to the center of the huge foreign capital, tells the Ninevites to repent and retreats to see God’s wrath fall on them. But, they repent and, after a parable within the tale about a broom plant given to shade Jonah, then taken away, the story of Jonah concludes with the message: God freely shows mercy on anyone he chooses.
There were two signs of Jonah applied to Jesus by the early Christians. First, Jesus was a prophet sent to preach to a reluctant people. The self-righteous rejected him, but sinners responded. Second, as Jonah was swallowed up by the sea monster (death) and then restored, so Jesus fulfilled this image in his death and resurrection. Matthew, eager to apply every prophecy to Jesus, sees in the figure of Jonah a foreshadowing of the Messianic secret and paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. This message is for us as well. We have been given a clear call and every chance to turn our hearts to God, whose mercy is being freely offered to everyone, even those outside the institutional and religious circles we belong to and take comfort in as Christians and Catholics. Reluctance is costly and postponement is folly. Now is the day of salvation. Don’t be afraid. Enter the sea of God’s mercy, the flow of grace, the falling and rising rhythm of life in Christ. Let him take you wherever your life can be a sign of love to others, even your enemies. This is the sign of Jonah.