Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 12:38-42

The Sign of Jonah

     38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

     39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

This probably isn’t many people’s favorite passage from Matthew, largely because it’s not immediately clear what Jesus is talking about here. He refers to the story of Jonah, which might be one of the most under-appreciated books of the whole Bible. It’s an Old Testament story – maybe even the oldest book of the Bible – but it speaks to one of the central ideas of the Christian faith, one that’s at the heart of our 21st century faith. And that’s the idea of grace. So let’s see what Jesus is talking about here.

In today’s reading, a group of “Pharisees and teachers of the law” approach Jesus and ask him to perform “a miraculous sign.” From the context, and from Jesus’ reaction, it seems that these Jewish religious leaders wanted him to demonstrate that he could really do it – they wanted him to establish his credentials, we might say.

But throughout the gospels, Jesus always refuses to do a miracle just to show he can. Throughout his earthly ministry, whenever Jesus performs miraculous healings and does other wondrous things, it’s for one of two reasons.

The first reason Jesus performs miraculous healings is that he feels profound compassion for the suffering people he meets. And the Greek term that’s translated as ‘compassion’ in the gospels actually indicates that Jesus experiences something like aching in the gut – that he literally ‘feels the pain’ of others.

The second reason for Jesus’ miracles is one we’ve talked about before in these Reflections: Each of his miraculous signs represents a preview of God’s kingdom. When that kingdom is brought to fulfillment, the blind will get their sight, the crippled will walk, the hungry will be fed, the dead will be returned to life. That’s why the New Testament refers to the miracles of Jesus as “signs” – a sign points beyond itself to some higher reality – in this case, to the kingdom of God.

So Jesus performs miracles for those two purposes – to relieve human suffering, and to provide a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom. But never to entertain people, or to prove that he can.

So having said that, why is this passage called “The Sign of Jonah?” Most people only remember Jonah as the guy who got swallowed up by a whale. (And actually, it was “a big fish.”) In this passage we’re thinking about today, Jesus points out that Jonah’s three days in the fish corresponds to the period between his crucifixion and his resurrection, which is interesting and no doubt significant.

But the real point Jesus wants to make here, it seems to me, is that the story of Jonah illustrates God’s grace and his willingness to forgive sins.

If you remember, the reason Jonah wound up getting swallowed by the big fish was that he had run away from an assignment God gave him. God told Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh and to call the people there to repent of their sins. But Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which was the hated enemy of Jonah’s people. So Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to repent of their sins and be forgiven; Jonah wanted God to destroy them. And Jonah was absolutely furious when the Ninevites did repent of their sins and God forgave them.

So maybe you see the connection – why the story of Jonah was a sign for the people of Jesus’ time? (And for us, for that matter?) The story of Jonah is a miraculous sign in its own right – a sign of God’s willingness to forgive us. No matter how bad our sins might be. And the story of Jonah is also a call to let go of our resentment of God’s forgiveness of others – even those we think are so bad they don’t deserve forgiveness. Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved forgiveness. And the Pharisees and religious leaders didn’t think the sinners Jesus befriended deserved forgiveness, either.

There’s one other odd little part of this passage. Jesus talks about “the Queen of the South” rising in judgment of “this generation.” The New Testament scholars say this seems to be a prophesy from Jesus that people from beyond the borders of Israel would accept Jesus as Lord and Savior when many Jews would not.

The point Jesus seems to be making is that there were plenty of signs the Pharisees and teachers of the law could look at to get a glimpse what God was (and still is) doing in the world. God’s grace was being extended. Sinners were being forgiven. Gentiles – foreigners – were being invited to experience new life in Jesus. God had begun establishing his kingdom on earth through the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, Jesus seems to be saying, the signs are already there – don’t bother him with requests for magic tricks.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the great signs you have given us – signs of the new kingdom you announced in Jesus. And for the grace by which we have received new life in Jesus. By your Spirit, empower us to play our part in bringing your kingdom to pass on earth, to proclaim your gracious love to all who will accept it. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 88 and 148; Jeremiah 43:1-13; I Corinthians 16:10-24; and Matthew 12:22-32.)