All of today’s readings say something about the difference between
lip service and action. In the first reading the people are anxious
to show their devotion to God in some tangible way, but in the psalm, God
says that the best way to show devotion is not through sacrifices or recitation
of prayer, but by following his laws. Saying the prayers doesn’t mean
too much when the people are not following His words. He says, "Why
do you recite my statutes, and profess my covenant with your mouth, though
you hate discipline and cast my words behind you?" The best way to
show devotion is to do his works.
In the Gospel, the people ask Jesus for a sign. But Jesus himself is the
sign and there should be no need for another. He tells them there will
be no sign but for the sign of Jonah. Now Jonah is, I think, a very
weird story. In a nutshell: Jonah is a good enough fellow, knows
his prayers, goes to church, but when God tells him specifically to go to
Nineveh to warn the people there of their impending doom, Jonah refuses to
go. He runs away from God and from his duty and gets on a ship.
God brings up a storm and tells the shipmen to throw Jonah overboard. Being
decent fellows they are loathe to do so, but Jonah is cast overboard and
swallowed by the fish. After three days he says, OK God, I’ll do whatever
you want, just let me out of the fish. And he is spit out on the shore
of Nineveh so he can preach. As soon as he tells the people to repent
before the Lord, they do so immediately. They had been pagan. They
didn’t know any better, but as soon as they learn of the Lord they convert
and repent right away to save their lives and their city. So God accepts
their repentance and spares the city. This is the part that gets to
me – so now Jonah is angry because God did not smite the city. He says,
you told me to tell them that the end is near, and then it wasn’t. I
look like a fool. I wish I was dead.
I think this is an odd sign. Jonah is the epitome of the reluctant
hero. He tries to run from his duty; even after he does his duty successfully
he does not appreciate the outcome. Jesus says that even as Jonah was
in the whale for three days so Jesus will be in the earth for three days.
And as the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s words, people will repent
at the Judgment. Jesus is greater than Jonah (of course, that bar is
not too high) and greater than Solomon, and the conversion for Jesus will
be greater than those. Maybe it’s because Jonah was such a putz.
If the people would convert even for Jonah, whose devotion was practically
non-existent – who had to be physically forced into action, how much more
would the people convert for Jesus who was beyond signs and beyond prophecy,
but was the fulfillment of all?