Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The sign of Jonah (today's Gospel)

Here is an excellent commentary on today's Gospel. It is by Fr Matthew Duckett, an assistant priest in the Parish of Old St Pancras, London, and comes from his BLOG

“Just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” (Luke 11:29-32) 

What kind of sign is the “Sign of Jonah”? When Matthew’s gospel reports this saying of Jesus it provides an explanation, because Matthew doesn’t like loose ends and does like using Old Testament texts to shed light on Jesus. So Matthew says, “For 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.” So the Sign of Jonah becomes the sign of the Resurrection. 

Certainly that’s an aspect of the Sign of Jonah, but Luke leaves it more open than Matthew. In fact the Sign of Jonah has many meanings. As we heard in the reading from the Book of Jonah itself, the main Sign that Jonah gave to the city of Nineveh was that he preached, “Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed, and repented, and the city was not overthrown, after all. 

So the Sign of Jonah is in the first place the sign of preaching, and believing, and repentance. And this is in fact exactly how Jesus begins his own mission. 

There is another way in which Jonah was a sign. Jonah’s story begins with him running away from the call of God, and in an extraordinary scene he’s on board a ship which gets caught in a violent storm, and the crew draw lots to see who is to blame, who has offended the gods. And they discover it is Jonah, and throw him overboard, whereupon Jonah is swallowed by the fish, and the storm ceases. 

So Jonah is also the sign of the scapegoat, the one whose apparent death restores peace and order to the little community of the boat once they have decided he was to blame and thrust him out. Which is if you like a type of what happened to Jesus on Good Friday, when he was thrust out of the city and killed by people who thought he was a blasphemer, under God’s curse, and a threat to their own society. So the Sign of Jonah is the Sign of preaching, of repentance, of the scapegoat, and of the resurrection. In all of these ways, Jesus will fulfil that sign. And although this Sign has these four different aspects, it is still one sign. What Jesus preaches is the Kingdom of God becoming real in the world through his death and resurrection. 

The gospel is preached to us and we are called to repent, because the death and resurrection of Jesus has exposed how complicit we are in the way the world makes victims and scapegoats. But much more than that, it has revealed the generosity and love of God who longs to lead us from the old way of sin and death to new life in Christ. 

In these days of Lent we seek to live more deeply the call to repentance we heard on Ash Wednesday:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. 

Through that repentance we join ourselves to the Sign of Jonah, the Sign of Jesus, the dying and rising of Christ, through which we, and we pray this great city in which we live, will be saved.


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