The Sign of Jonah?
[Preceding this sermon we heard Jonah 1 from the NRSV]
We heard Jonah, chapter one. Now let us hear the story of Jonah, through chapter three (of Jonah’s four chapters), in a 20th century context:
Sometime in the second half of 1940, after France surrendered to Germany on June 14th, the word of the Lord came to a Catholic priest in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Marie,† saying, “Go at once to Berlin, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jean-Baptiste-Marie set out to flee to Buenos Aires from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Bordeaux and found a ship going to Buenos Aires; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Buenos Aires, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the men were afraid Jean-Baptiste-Marie brought the wrath of the Lord upon them because he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, so they cast him overboard and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they prayed to the Lord and made vows to the Lord.
But the Lord provided a U-boat to save Jean-Baptiste-Marie; and Jean-Baptiste-Marie was in the U-boat for three days and three nights. Jean-Baptiste-Marie prayed several verses from the Psalms to the Lord from inside the U-boat. Then the Lord spoke to the U-boat commandant, and he delivered Jean-Baptiste-Marie upon the dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jean-Baptiste-Marie a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Berlin, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jean-Baptiste-Marie set out and went to Berlin, according to the word of the Lord. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Berlin shall be overthrown!” And the people of Berlin believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on burlap sacks.
When the news reached Adolph Hitler, he rose from his Führer’s chair, removed his Führer’s uniform, covered himself with burlap sacks, and sat in the trash heap. Then he had a proclamation made in Berlin: “By the decree of the Führer and the generals of the Third Reich: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with burlap sacks, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Of course, we all know World War II raged for five more years, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the Battle of Berlin alone, not to mention the tens of millions killed across Europe during the war. According to historians cited in the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Berlin, in “June 1945, one month after the surrender [of Germany], the average calorie intake of Berliners was … only 64 percent of a 1,240-calorie daily ration. Further, across the city over a million people were without a home.” The entire city of Berlin was reduced to rubble from Allied bombing and Soviet Katyusha rockets. Berlin and Germany were utterly destroyed, and the Third Reich collapsed, never again to re-emerge.
The second story provides a parallel to help us understand how the people of Israel/Judah would have felt about the story of Jonah as they encountered it for centuries up until the time of Jesus in the first century. No one knows precisely when the Book of Jonah was written. All we know is that it was written sometime between the 8th and 2nd centuries before Christ. If there’s any consensus on Jonah’s date, it would probably be earlier rather than later.
In the 8th century in 722 BCE the Assyrian empire destroyed Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, which was the largest empire the world had ever seen and Nineveh was the largest city. Eventually, however, internal conflict and alliances among the enemies of Assyria, namely the Babylonians, emboldened Assyria’s enemies to overthrow their rule. Nineveh was completely destroyed in 612 BCE never to be rebuilt. Ancient Nineveh existed near the current city of Mosul, a large city in northern Iraq.
Fast forward six and a half centuries to Jesus in Matthew 12:38-42:
38Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!
What does Jesus mean when he refers to the “sign of the prophet Jonah?” In the book, Jonah is not referred to as a “prophet.” The word “prophet” doesn’t even appear in the Book of Jonah. Yet, by the time of Jesus, the book is included as one of “the Twelve,” what we call the “minor prophets.” However, as with other prophets, there is no oracle given by God to Jonah. Jonah is at first totally reluctant to follow God, which is in stark contrast to other prophets. The book contains no grounded historical context, unlike other prophets. The book is narrative in form, unlike other prophets. And not only that, the narrative of the Book of Jonah portrays an alternate history that everyone in antiquity would have known to be false. Nineveh did not repent. And ultimately, Nineveh was utterly destroyed, never to be rebuilt.
There are so many strange and unexplained things about the Book of Jonah that we should wonder why, for goodness sake, we fixate on the big fish thing? We often fixate on this one absurd aspect of the story, parallel it to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and triumphantly declare the “sign of the prophet Jonah” to be Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Done.
There are so many strange and unexplained things about the Book of Jonah that we should wonder why, for goodness sake, we fixate on the big fish thing?
That’s too easy a leap to make with our two millennia of hindsight bias. It’s not that paralleling Jonah in the fish to the crucifixion and resurrection is an unacceptable interpretation, it’s just too easy to stop there because such simplification shuts out other important messages to be gleaned from the text. So, what did Jesus mean? Well, he probably meant many things, but Jesus himself went beyond the simple reference to the fish thing and made direct reference to judgment and repentance. “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah.” Jesus also referred to the story of the queen of Sheba told in 1 Kings 10 who “came to test [the famous and wise king Solomon] with hard questions … Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her … So she said to the king, ‘The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard.’”
Both Jonah and the queen of Sheba jumped to conclusions about others, namely foreigners, and could not accept for themselves the true worth of those foreigners without seeing them with their own eyes.
Could the Ninevites really repent? (This was one of Jonah’s struggles.)
Could God really repent? (This was another one of Jonah’s struggles.)
Could king Solomon really be as wise as his reputation? (This was the struggle for the queen of Sheba.)
The scribes and Pharisees in the story of Matthew 12 are caught in the midst of the “evil and adulterous generation [that] asks for a sign.” We should be real careful not to jump to conclusions about the scribes and Pharisees as “evil” and “adulterous.” In our context we might refer to the “professors” and “pastors,” not the first groups of people we think of as “evil” and “adulterous” … at least I hope not!
Why was Jesus always confronted by “professors” and “pastors,” as it were? The scribes and Pharisees were people who obviously knew the scriptures extremely well and the vast majority of them lived exemplary lives in the eyes of the community. Yet they were looking for something else, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” By this point Jesus had already done several miraculous things and preached the Sermon on the Mount, which summarized and sharpened the greatest teachings of Jewish faith. “What more do you want?” Jesus asked, or so it seemed. “What more?” A real, undeniable sign from God! The “sign of the prophet Jonah,” the crucifixion, the resurrection. If they don’t believe Jesus’s miracles and his teachings, then they’ll have to believe in him after the cross!
What else did Jesus say to the scribes and Pharisees? “See, something greater than Jonah is here! See, something greater than Solomon is here!” Jesus himself was standing right in front of them, and they were so blinded by their own proclamations to repent to righteous living and to teach the wisdom of the scriptures that they could not see God in the human flesh of Jesus. They could not see beyond the human flesh of the gray matter between their ears. Seeking signs reduce faith to a kind of materialism, to worshiping fleeting perceptions of the senses.
Upon deeper reflection perhaps we can see the “sign of the prophet Jonah” as the spiritual yearning for God in the midst of seemingly inescapable suffering, of being trapped in the depths of the sea, in the belly of a big fish and its digestive stench. This yearning transcends our human senses and is magnificently captured by the collection of verses from several Psalms in Jonah, chapter two.
Upon deeper reflection perhaps we can see the “sign of the prophet Jonah” as the spiritual yearning for God in the midst of seemingly inescapable suffering …
What will be our reaction to the move of God’s Spirit when our so-called “enemies” do repent? When those wiser than us exchange their wealth with ours? Please consider these questions and more this week as you read Jonah before we tune in next Sunday to consider the conclusion of the Book of Jonah and its application to us as individuals. Amen.
†Historical note: Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests. He lived during the first half of the 19th century and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, the year when Hitler reconstituted the Nazi party.