instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, March 06, 2009

The signs of Jonah

In Matthew 12, Jesus is asked by "some of the scribes and Pharisees" for a sign. He replies:
"An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here."
That provides a clear enough definition of what "the sign of Jonah the prophet" is (recognizing the ineffable mystery it refers to).

In two other Gospel passages, though, Jesus mentions "the sign of Jonah," but does not give the belly-of-the-whale interpretation. In the passage from Luke, Jesus says that "Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites." The Ninevites (as far as we know) knew nothing of Jonah's time in the whale; what they did know was his his journey through the city announcing, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed."

All this suggests that Jonah the prophet was a type of Jesus in two ways, both in his three days in the belly of the whale and in his journey through Nineveh (a three day journey, although the Ninevites began to fast after just one day). (The Lectionary, in pairing the passage from Luke with the third chapter of Jonah, seems to agree with the suggestion.)

And that suggests a unity of Jesus' own preaching and His death and burial. The sign of Jesus isn't His preaching, although His preaching ought to have been a sufficient sign for the scribes and Pharisees. Nor is the sign of Jesus His three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, although His resurrection ought to have been a sufficient sign for everyone.*

The sign of Jesus is Jesus. And He is sufficient.

* Note that speaking of being in the heart of the earth three days and three nights is equivalent to speaking of resurrection; otherwise we'd have to speak of umpty-thousand days and nights and counting.)