What Exactly is the Sign of Jonah?

jonah sistine chapel
Jonah by Michelangelo


We might ask for a sign from God. But no sign will be given to this generation, except the sign of Jonah.

Okay. But what exactly is “the sign of Jonah?” There seems to be a slight discrepancy. After all…

a. We read in Luke that the Lord says that “Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites.” As we read in the book of Jonah, the prophet went to the huge city and preached repentance for their sins.


b. we read in Matthew that the Lord says that “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.”

So is the “sign of Jonah” his preaching repentance in Nineveh? Or is it his little sojourn in his buddy the whale’s belly? Which is the sign, Lord?

Yes. The answer, as usual, is Yes. I think we touch the heart of the matter here—the matter of Lent, the matter of Christianity. The answer is Yes, when we re-phrase the question about the sign of Jonah. Namely, like this:

How are we supposed to repent? What stimulates repentance? Sometimes we repent because sin has unpleasant effects right now. For instance, dude repents of drinking too much last night, solely because he has a hangover. Or wife repents of being mean to her husband, because he won’t talk to her now.

But relying completely on this kind of stimulus for repentance exposes a soul to the gravest danger. Because the worst sins may not have unpleasant consequences in this pilgrim life. People might grow tired of Father’s tediousness during his sermons and decide to spend Sunday mornings somewhere other than church. Does this cause cold sores, or stiff knees? Does the house get struck by lightning? No, the tv works just fine. No immediate unpleasant consequences.

Charles Bosseron Chambers Sacred Heart of JesusWhat, then, can stimulate me truly to repent?

The one absolutely effective stimulus is: Contemplating Christ crucified and Christ risen.

Christ crucified and risen reveals:

  1. The extent and gravity of my sins and God’s divine love and mercy.
  2. The demands that God’s law makes on me and my ability to achieve a peaceful conscience when I put my faith in Him.

He would have had to suffer this much just for me, if I were the only sinner. And He would willingly have done so, because that’s how much He loves me. God’s justice demands nothing less than the sacrifice of the perfectly innocent Lamb. And He freely offers that sacrifice Himself, so that, when I put myself at His feet, I can rest my soul there, like a child.

Those Whom the Lord Prefers

When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to go and offer sacrifice to the Lord, Moses promised that the angel of death would descend on the firstborn of the Egyptians.  But among the Israelites, not a dog would bark.  “Thus you will see how God distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.”

Meanwhile we readAt the judgment, the people of Nineveh will rise and condemn this generation of Israelites.

imelda_marcosSo:  God distinguishes, yes; He has a preference.  But based on what?  He can, after all, raise up children to Abraham from the very stones.

The “sign of Jonah” gives us the answer.

The Egyptians had some serious pagan pride.  “You Jews want to go into the wilderness and practice another religion, other than ours?  What do you mean?  We have it all going on!  Look at how good-looking we are, especially Pharaoh.  We are practically divine ourselves!”

On the other hand, Jonah preached to the Ninevites:  “Remember, man, that you are dust.  You will return to dust.  You will return to dust as sure as snow will melt when the temperature rises above 32 degrees.”  Hearing this reasonableness, the Ninevites repented.  They said, “Lord, you are the Almighty God!  We are dust and ashes.  Have mercy on us and spare us!”

God prefers people who repent.  It’s that simple.

If I might, let’s meditate on it like this:  If Christ came solely to save me, He would have to suffer every bit as much as He actually did suffer.  He suffered then for everyone, including Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Osama bin Laden, all of whom could have been saved if they repented at the last minute.

Christ would have to suffer every bit as much, even if I myself were the only sinner ever.  I might, in some dark corner of my soul, coddle myself with this kind of half-thought:  “You know, if Jesus Christ were suffering only to atone for my sins, it wouldn’t be as bad.  He probably would just have to endure a headcold.  Just a headcold, with constant sneezing for like two weeks.  Or maybe just being put on hold by Appalachian Power Company for 25 minutes or so.  Then all my sins would be atoned for, if the Son of God endured those things for me…”

Negative, sir.  Not true.  Because the need for Christ’s sacrifice has not arisen primarily from the proliferation of human sins, or from their relative gravity.  Certainly, human sins have proliferated alarmingly, with plenty of grave ones.

But that, actually, pales in significance compared to another factor:  The dignity of the One we have offended by each and every one of our sins.  Every time I have acted in a thoughtless manner–every time I have harbored an unworthy thought!–I have offended the infinitely kind and good God.  I have offended Someone Who makes Mother Theresa look like Imelda Marcos by comparison.

But:  This is who the Lord prefers!  The people who say to Christ crucified:  “Yes, Lord.  I myself have nailed You to Your Holy Cross by my own negligence and nonsense.  I myself brought Your bitter Passion on You!  Have mercy on me.  Forgive me.  By Your cross and resurrection, give me a fresh start, Lord.  I am nothing; You are everything!”

Ninevites Loving Themselves

The Palaces of Nimrud Restored by James Fergusson
The Palaces of Nimrud Restored by James Fergusson

You may recall that three years ago we discussed the Ninevites and their love for themselves. We don’t know much about them, the ancient Ninevites and their king. But we do know that, when Jonah came to them as a messenger from God, they listened.

The king of Nineveh listened, and he loved himself for the first time in his life. The king loved himself enough to decide then and there to live in the truth. He threw off the empty pomps of his courtly grandeur and humbled himself before his Maker.

For the first time, the king loved his people. He declared that everyone should heed the words of Jonah. And for the first time ever, the Ninevites truly loved themselves. They turned to God, their Creator and their Father. With confidence in His patient love, they begged His mercy, and they received it.

confessionalWe may be late, too, in coming to love ourselves. But as long as we draw breath, late is not too late. Today the Lord loves us, and longs for us, and stands ready to forgive any and all sins that we have the courage to acknowledge to Him. And He wills to give us the courage and the insight that we will need to confess.

What is sin #1, of which we are all probably very guilty? Not going to Confession anywhere near enough. Do we love ourselves so little? When the Lord waits in the confessional to forgive, to restore, and to refresh us? And we leave Him waiting?

#2: Do we pray anywhere near enough for the people closest to us–the annoying, tedious people with so many objectionable habits?

The Lord constantly wills that the people we dislike the most will get to heaven. He wills it constantly. The Lord Jesus wills that the greatest villains on earth will get to heaven, by repentance and renewal of soul. Christ stands ready at all times to forgive the sins of the greatest killers and terrorists, once they repent. And He offers the grace of repentance and contrition to all of them, and weeps in His Heart if they are stubborn. Just like He weeps in His Heart when we are stubborn.

Are we anywhere near to seeing other people the way the Lord sees them? With such love and desire for them to love themselves and live in the truth?

Now, before we get discouraged and decide that we are miserable losers without an ounce of real charity in our hearts, let’s remember Jonah. He had no love for the Ninevites. He wanted to see them burn.

But the Lord basically forced Jonah to obey; the Lord more or less forced Jonah to preach repentance to the people he hated. God willed the salvation of that deplorable cesspool of a city. And Jonah was to be His preacher, and convert the Ninevites to true faith. And God saw it done.

So: we do not have to have pure divine love in our hearts. We don’t even have to obey God willingly. We just have to obey Him. Even if we sullenly and grudgingly do what the Lord asks, He will bring good out of it.

Can we doubt that He asks us all to go to Confession during Lent? Even if we go to Confession grudgingly and will sullen obtuseness, like Jonah went to Nineveh grudgingly, with sullen obtuseness–even if we go to the foot of the Cross to confess our sins grudgingly and sullenly, He will forgive us and bring good out of it.

Father Mapple (Gregory Peck) on Jonah


Any Gregory Peck fans? Some people know that Gregory Peck played Captain Ahab in a 1956 movie version of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A few people maybe know that Gregory Peck made a cameo appearance in the 1998 tv-miniseries version. Which character did he portray then? Father Mapple. Who gave a stirring sermon on…? The prophet Jonah! Here’s a summary.

Jonah began by disobeying God’s direct order. Go to Nineveh. Go east. Jonah sailed west. Jonah hated the Ninevites. He did not want the Ninevites to repent and find salvation. He wanted them to burn.

Jonah by Michelangelo
Jonah by Michelangelo

So Jonah disobeyed, simply because he did not want to fulfill the Lord’s command.

As Father Mapple, Gregory Peck puts it eloquently, “To obey God, we must disobey ourselves; it is in this disobeying of ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

The Lord turned the tables on Jonah. The fugitive has to jump overboard to keep the ship on which he sails from sinking in a storm. Then a whale swallows Jonah.

From the belly of the whale, Jonah finally prays. He begins by acknowledging that God has justly punished him. Lord, this is miserable, languishing in the belly of a whale. But I deserve it.

This, Father Mapple points out, is repentance of the deepest and most faithful kind. I have sinned, Lord, and You have justly punished. Praise you! Jonah loves God enough to praise Him for making life miserable for him.

Father Mapple then goes on to emphasize how the Lord liberated the penitent Jonah and Jonah embraced his duty. Jonah went to seek the repentance of the Ninevites by telling them the unpleasant truth. As Father Mapple has it: Truth rather than pleasure. Truth rather than comfort. Truth rather than honor in this world.

Then, as we read at Holy Mass today, the Ninevites repented with stunning thoroughness. They repented instantly and completely. Jonah preached, and the people—from low to high—listened and renounced their wicked ways.

How can we explain such an amazing conversion of the entire city?

I think Father Mapple’s point about the profound sincerity of Jonah’s faith—his own humility in acknowledging the justice of God’s punishments—this is the explanation. The Ninevites saw in Jonah a precursor of St. Paul: a man who came not with charisma, not with wisdom, not with eloquence, but with the absolute conviction that God is true to His word. And that our job is to disobey ourselves so we can obey Him.

To An Unsinkable Location

Just over a month ago, the world marked the 100th anniversary of the demise of the RMS Titanic. The unsinkable ship went down to the murky north-Atlantic deep. Like a floating city of lights, clean and fine and elegant in every appointment—it darkened; it fractured; it foundered. Now all its intricately carved banisters and mantelpieces, all its monogrammed china and crystal martini glasses—all of it lies in the mud, covered with aquatic mold.

Maybe you remember the scene in the Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet movie: the ship’s designer, on board for the maiden voyage—he knows that the Titanic will sink in one hour. He has surveyed the ice-berg damage, knows where the holes in the hull are, and he has reached his inescapable conclusion. The huge ship is slowly going down.

Continue reading “To An Unsinkable Location”

Loving Oneself in Nineveh

Twenty years since Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints got a Grammy nomination. One-hundred fifty since Grant and the Union occupied Nashville, Tennessee. Multiple millennia since Jonah preached in Nineveh…

The people of Nineveh repented. (Luke 11:32)

The people of Nineveh repented. What sins had they committed?

Continue reading “Loving Oneself in Nineveh”

Small Jonah, Big God

Today at Mass we read the conclusion of the prophet Jonah’s adventure. The Lord had ordered him to go to Nineveh, to call the huge city to repentance.

But like his Hebrew brethren, Jonah hated the Ninevites, because they were godless pagans. So Jonah did not go east as commanded, but booked passage on a boat heading in the opposite direction.

God, however, holds the cards. A storm arose. The other men on the boat feared for their lives. They discovered that Jonah was to blame. Begging the Lord’s mercy, the sailors cast Jonah overboard in order to save the ship. A whale swallowed him, and then spat him back up on dry land.

Jonah begrudgingly went to Nineveh and preached repentance. The prophet had been angry about the whole business from the beginning, but what happened next made him even angrier than he was before: The people of Nineveh promptly repented and begged God for mercy. Even the cows were dressed in sackcloth to show the Lord that the whole city, from the king on down—everyone was sorry for their sins.

So God spared the Ninevites, and did not carry out his wrathful punishment.

This really burned Jonah to the quick.

So: Jonah, even though he was a consecrated prophet of God, carried on like an unreasonable, petulant, demanding child from beginning to end. Somehow the Lord managed to turn his mission into an enormous success anyway.

Often, when the disciples would ask the Lord Jesus a question, He would not give an immediate, straightforward answer. This was because many of the disciples’ questions proceeded from their obtuse incomprehension of basic facts.

But when they said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus was pleased. They were acknowledging that they did not know about the most important thing. What could be more important than prayer? And yet, left to our own devices, we will make a mess of it.

Lord, teach us to pray. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Forgive us our petulant, unreasonable, self-indulgent sins. Spare us from the really difficult trials, because we are too weak to handle them. We can barely handle easy trials.

We trust that you know how to make the big things work out. Please just keep us fed, and we will do our best with the little things.

Will He Judge?

Jesus said: “The Father commanded me what to say and speak, and I know that his commandment is eternal life.”

On a number of occasions, Christ declined to present Himself as the supreme judge which, in fact, He is.

Once, He told his audience that the Ninevites of old and the ancient Queen of Sheba would judge them, because these pagans had listened to, and heeded, the Word of God.

Christ told His faithful Apostles that they, His appointed teachers, would judge the Twelve tribes of Israel.

He asked an aggrieved plaintiff, “Friend, who appointed me your judge and arbitrator?”

And right before the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus insisted: ‘I came to save, not to judge. My doctrine itself will judge those who fail to heed it.’

Continue reading “Will He Judge?”

May God Lay Aside the Violence

Jonah by Michelangelo

Jonah went to the enormous city of Nineveh and informed the people that the Lord intended to destroy the place in forty days. In other words, the prophet presented himself as a sign to the Ninevites, a sign of the transcendent justice of Almighty God.

The king of Nineveh saw the sign and believed. Speaking on behalf of the whole city, the king repented of his injustice and declared that all the Ninevites would lay aside the violence that each had in hand.

The king took for granted that he and all his people had violence in hand. This was a fair assumption. One does not like to generalize, but we can safely say of ourselves that we sinners generally have some kind of violence in hand. Maybe not shedding blood. But violence to someone’s good name, or violence to someone’s vulnerable feelings, or violence to good order and someone’s rightful place. Our egos are voracious; they make us do violence, often under-cover.

So, talk about a good thing to do for Lent: to recognize the violence I have in hand for what it is, and lay it aside. Because look at what happened next in the Book of Jonah: When the Ninevites laid aside the violence they had in hand, the Lord laid aside the violence He had in hand.

We know the Lord is meek and gentle. But we also know that He is unfailingly righteous. He is perfect peace in Himself. But His omnipotent truth and justice destroys evil and deceit. Do we think the tsunami in Japan was a formidable force? The truth of God will roll like a tsunami over all lies, and it will make the north of Japan look like a kiddie pool. God does not will violence, but His willing of peace does violence to disorder, selfishness, and pride.

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us lay aside the violence we have in hand—the jealousy, grudges, turf wars, one-upmanship, gossip, selfishness, pettiness, meanness—let’s lay it all aside and beg God with desperate hearts:

Easter time. Something to look forward to.
Lord, we know that in justice we deserve condemnation, but have mercy on us anyway, forgive us, and help us!

…In the first game of the NCAA tournament, four players fouled out. Sportscaster lingo: “DQ” for disqualified. Five fouls? Dairy Queen.

By the by, the Dairy Queen density of southwest Virginny crushes the DQ density of metro Washington. Not even close. At this moment, there are 16 DQs within twenty miles. (Total number of Dairy Queen in the Archdiocese of Washington? Five.) Cannot wait for Lent to be over.