Woe to (and Deliverance for) the Faithless Generation

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent: Jonah 3:1-10, Luke 11:29-32.

We receive a warning from Jesus today about faithlessness. The readings trace his presence among several faithless generations who came to trust and fear God, including those of his time who challenged his authority. This is a valuable lesson for us not to question or challenge the Lord our God. He also gives us a wonderful foreshadowing of his own resurrection.

The short Book of Jonah is as rich a study of human error as it is brief in length. The reading we receive today is the entirety of Chapter 3, one quarter of the whole Book of Jonah. It occurs after Jonah has already tried to flee God’s command to warn the people of Nineveh, after he is swallowed by the giant fish for three days and then spit back up on land after his prayer of distress from the belly of the fish. In other words, we enounter a man who believes in God but is unwilling to do His work. God puts him through trials to purify his heart, and Jonah finally realizes his indebtedness to God and converts to do the work he is asked. Many of us live a parallel relationship with God.

Jonah and the Whale (Jonas uitgespuwd door de walvis), 1621, Pieter Lastman | Wikimedia Commons.

Note that the beginning of today’s reading is specific about who speaks to Jonah: “the word of the LORD.” This is the second person of our triune God, the one who became flesh in Jesus Christ. With Jonah, He displays God’s eternal forgiveness and desire to work with and through us in the world. While Nineveh would have taken three days to walk through, the people listen to Jonah on just his first day, much to his surprise. In fact, everyone, king included, puts on sackcloth, repents, and asks God to be spared. Jonah, unwilling and unwitting as he is, has done the Lord’s work and brings about a miraculous change in the people that saves them.

(As an aside, Chapter 4 of Jonah is worth revisiting if you haven’t read it lately. We see a pouting Jonah get angry with God because he was made to look like a fool since his warning did not come true. He just doesn’t understand that he should rejoice over the success of his warning and God’s resulting mercy. God gives him one last lesson in the matter. Jonah is so relatable! How many times have I been too wrapped up in myself and worry over embarrassment so that I miss the work of God in the world?)

Shifting to the gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus recalls Jonah’s work as well as the Jewish King Solomon as a way to show his contemporaries that they are completely missing God in front of them. Christ says,

At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.

Let’s take a moment to recall this piece of Jewish history as related in the 1st Book of Kings, Chapter 10 .  Upon his ascendency to the throne, Solomon displays that he truly loves God and makes many sacrifices to Him. He is then visited by God in a dream and told: “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon asks for wisdom to best govern God’s people. This pleases God greatly in that his petition was for the benefit of the nation, and replies, “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (Note that the Book of Wisdom in the Bible is also known as the Wisdom of Solomon).

What is the Wisdom of God? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us (and the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes this), “In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical. Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect” (CCC 271). Wisdom is part and parcel of God’s intellect and power. And God shares his Wisdom through his Word, which is Truth. Therefore, the Word of God, who is Christ, is the expression of Wisdom, and was a constant companion of Solomon.

Back to our passage, “the queen of the south” is the Queen of Sheba (Sheba is thought to be either modern-day Yemen or Ethiopia). She hears of Solomon’s fame and “came to test him with hard questions.” She brings a huge retinue with loads of treasures and precious spices. She’s full of unbelief, but after speaking with him and seeing firsthand how he ruled, she exclaims, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard.” She bestows great treasures upon him.

Christ, the Word of God, was with both Jonah and Solomon when they performed God’s work in the world, and the Jews of his time were well aware of these histories. So when he says that both the Queen of Sheba and Jonah will condemn them, they understand that these two signify great unbelief that has been converted to belief. To be condemned by the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites is ignominious indeed!

Jonah preaching in the city of Nineveh (Jonás predicando al pueblo de Nínive), Andrea Vaccaro (1604-1670) | Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla.

Jesus does not call them an evil generation because of a general lack of faith in God or a betrayal of his commandments, but because of their lack of faith in Him. He says, “At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.” Yes, that something greater is the Word of God in the flesh. Unlike the warnings of the prophets in the Old Testament, who were mainly concerned with those disobeying God’s laws, Jesus has a very specific condemnation related to not believing in his divinity. Why is this so important? Because the New Covenant given to us — our new Baptism — relies on the faith that God himself has made a sacrifice in the form of a human in order to open up a new reality of communion with Him. If we don’t believe that Jesus is God, then claiming a new reality in Christianity is a sham. Our belief is what will carry us into the salvation that has been granted to us by the grace of God.

Thus, Jesus has rough words for the generation that does not believe in Him: their condemnation at the final judgment. These are terrifying words. Christ proclaims, “no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” Jonah’s words that scared an entire city and its king into wearing sackcloth and begging for mercy were, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Christ gives this same sign to the Jews, and the earthquake that shakes the temple and the curtain of the Holy of Holies being torn in half do indeed overthrow the Old Covenant. The new Jerusalem is born: it is the resurrected body of Christ.

This is one way to understand the “sign of Jonah,” but we might detect a bitterness and vengefulness here. That doesn’t quite fit. God goes out of his way to cure Jonah of his bitterness and vengeful nature at the end of the Book of Jonah. Maybe we need to dwell on what Jesus means by the “sign of Jonah.” He makes a distinction between Jonah’s words and the overall sign that he became: “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” The good news here is that the Ninevites listened to Jonah. He did, in fact, save them from destruction. His words were those of condemnation, but the result was repentance. Thus, the overall “sign” Jonah represents is conversion.

Christ’s warning to those around him is still very real, but He is speaking as if outside of time, seeing the entirety of his earthly mission. He is letting them know that He is a sign from the Father, who wants them to repent and see His Son. That sign is a hopeful one of conversion and deliverance.

One last beautiful parallel between Christ and Jonah. What do we usually associate with Jonah? The whale! He spends three days in the belly of the whale and then is miraculously spit up on the beach. This is the sign of resurrection. When Jesus says, “no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah,” it almost seems like an understatement when you consider that Jonah is the sign of resurrection. What a sign! And, truly, that sign of Jonah launched the Church as the Body of Christ that exists to this day and will exist forever.

These readings urge us to recognize the significance of Christ as the true Lord and Son of God. May we all recognize that His mission on earth was the most important event in the history of the world.


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