Something Greater Is Here

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

We are steeped in the importance of Christology with today’s readings. In his 1998 Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, Pope Saint John Paul II writes, “The word of God reveals the final destiny of men and women and provides a unifying explanation of all that they do in the world” (81). Do we really understand that the incarnate Word of God is this important? Do we interpret all of history through Christ or do we think that he’s just one voice among many holy voices? Today’s readings lead us to reflect on Christ, the “Something Greater,” who came to earth. Note that the reflection below is a lightly edited and revised version of the one I posted last year on this day in Lent.

Today’s readings trace the Word’s presence among several faithless generations as an agent of conversion to God. The first reading tells us of Jonah and the Ninevites. 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 encounter 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,” that is, the Son of God. The Word of God is patient with Jonah, willing to put up with Jonah’s reluctance to show us how we can be His instruments 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, fasts, 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!)

In the gospel reading, 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 .  After he takes the throne, King 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. It pleases God greatly that Solomon’s petition was not selfish but for the benefit of the nation. The Word of God 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 very skeptical, but after speaking with him and seeing firsthand how he rules, 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.

To recap: the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba are Gentiles (non-Jews) who come to believe thanks to a Jewish figure who walks with the Word of God and does God’s will. Is this not exactly Jesus’s mission as He establishes the Church? First, he starts with the Chosen People but then opens the gates of the Kingdom to all humanity. The point in today’s passage is that if Gentiles can be converted — those who don’t even know the rich history of the Chosen People’s walk with God over the centuries — then how bad is it that Jews themselves can’t listen to the Word of God right in front of them? To be condemned by the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites is ignominious indeed!

The Queen of Sheba (1911), Edmund Dulac | Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art.

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 we are closing the door to our own salvation. 

But Christ proclaims, “no sign will be given it [this generation], except the sign of Jonah.” This has at least two levels of meaning. First, the sign of Jonah is a call to repentance. 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.

Second, we have to understand that the “sign of Jonah” was also understood as a positive thing. God goes out of his way to cure Jonah of his bitterness and vengeful nature at the end of the Book of Jonah. In the gospel reading, Jesus 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 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.

The third level of meaning in the “sign of Jonah” is the one least expected by the Jews. 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. What a sign to receive! And, truly, that sign of Jonah launched the Church as the Body of Christ that exists to this day and will exist forever.

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