FEBRUARY 28, 2007, THE SIGN OF JONAH - LUKE 11:29-32

JUST AS JONAH WAS A SIGN FOR THE NINEVITES, SO WILL THE SON OF MAN BE A SIGN FOR THE PRESENT AGE. Our Lordís words in today Ďs Gospel raises the question: ĎJust how was Jonah a sign for the Ninevites?í What is this ĎSign of Jonah? From his own comments Jesus himself provides the answer for us: By the witness of his preaching Jonah became a sign of judgment on the sins of the people of his time and his words were an inducement to their repentance. The Sign of Jonah then is the call to recognize Godís claims and to seek his pardon and favor by acknowledgment and sorrow for sin and a change of life. In a word this sign is a call for belief in God as offering mercy that is heard and responded to. The immediate reaction to Jonah is one of acknowledgment of his word as a message from God. Its first effect is a fresh awareness of one self as seen in light of Godís holiness.

A further aspect of this sign as Jesus intends it is the fact that Jonahís words as such were sufficient evidence for acceptance by the Ninevites; they required no further evidence than his preaching. In contrast with Jesusí audience at the time they did not demand proof that the words of the prophet were a valid judgment against them. Their dispositions were such that mere confrontation with the truth gained their acceptance. Their hearts were not hardened, insensitive to the message brought by the prophet. This is the disposition that alone is acceptable to our Lord; he will provide no further proof beyond that of his own person and the words he conveys in his preaching.

Such a response on our Lordís part is highly instructive for us. He does not accommodate himself to human demands readily when they are given a weight that clashes with the nature of belief. Humans do not determine the proper attitude to assume in the face of Godís truth when it appears; rather, we are to submit to the evidence that truth itself supplies in its disclosure. We must be trained to recognize this witness as true reflection of Godís dignity and holiness when and how it appears, under the forms it assumes. For this is our responsibility: so to live, so to act as to become more in harmony with the living God himself, as manifested in his word and in his creation which is filled with traces of his power, wisdom, truth and beauty.

There is more to this sign of Jonah, however, than is explicit in our Lordís reference to him, as we learn from the story of his commission as a prophet. Realizing the danger to which his commission as a prophet of the living God exposed him Jonah determined to head in the opposite direction and go to the end of the familiar world, to Tarshish. The voyage turns into a disaster and he acknowledges his guilty role in the threat it poses so he is sacrificed willingly for the safety of the ship. Saved by the intervention of a whale who swallows him up only to vomit him out safely on shore, enabling him to carrying out his mission. In this way he becomes a figure of the Savior who descended into death only to rise to a God filled life.

When Thomas Merton, breaking with a long-established monastic tradition, published his personal journal describing his daily experience of monastic life, he gave it the title "The Sign of Jonah". For he viewed his way of living his vocation as a monk as a paradox. He had come to the monastery to die to the world, living in silence, solitude and obscurity in view of a hidden life of contemplative and penitential union with the Lord. Yet he discovered that his call led to his becoming more present to the world through words that made him much more widely known than would have been the case had he remained in secular society. The mystery of Jonah then is the hidden presence to the world one has renounced through accepting the death of the old man, alienated from God and by trusting belief surrendering to Godís plan. This is the paradox that faith and trust in our Lord brings about for everyone who truly acknowledges him as Savior and obeys his word. A stronger living presence of God to his world and to all persons of God will is made possible for such faith as turns oneís life over to his will and Providence. May we accept this Sign of Jonah as communicated to us in todayís Gospel and in this Eucharist as the healing and sanctifying gift of Godís love for those who put their hope in him.                           

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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