In the Gospel for Wednesday (Wednesday of the First Week of Lent) the Lord says, This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah (Lk 11:30). What is the sign of Jonah? Does it apply today?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present two signs of Jonah, one of which particularly concerns us here.
First Sign: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invokes Jonah in a twofold way: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). In this image, Jonah’s descent into the belly of the whale is a sign of the Lord’s descent to Sheol. For the sake of brevity, I would like to set aside this first sign and go on to discuss the second sign of Jonah. (Matthew’s Gospel sets this second sign forth in essentially the same way as does the Lucan version.)
Second Sign: In the Lucan version, read at today’s Mass, the mention of the whale is omitted and only this second sign is declared: This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 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. 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 (Luke 11:29-32).
But what exactly is this (second) sign of Jonah? On one level, the text seems to spell it out rather clearly. Jonah had gone to the Ninevites with this message: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:3). In response, the Ninevites (led by their King) repented, fasted, and prayed. Seeing their actions, God relented and did not destroy them. So on one level the sign of Jonah is the message “Repent or die.” Just as the Ninevites heard Jonah’s warning, put faith in it, and were spared, so the people of Jesus’ time should put faith in His warning to repent and believe the Good News. If they do not, they will meet with great disaster.
What would cause this disaster? The description of the sign of Jonah taps into the historical context of Jonah’s ministry, but applied to the people of Jesus’ time it has a polemical tone. Let’s consider why.
When Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, he resisted. He must have thought that it was a no-win situation for him: either they would rebuff his prophecy (and likely kill him) or they would heed his message and grow stronger. (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel, and Jonah had no interest in seeing them strengthened.)
When Jonah made his announcement of imminent destruction, Assyria did repent, and in their strength they would become a rod in God’s hand to punish Israel. Isaiah the Prophet had well described Israel’s crimes and said that punishment would surely come upon her from Assyria. God would use Assyria to humble and punish His people, Israel. Here is a key passage in which Assyria is described in this way: … Assyria, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets (Isaiah 10:5-6).
Here, then, is a deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah: if Israel will not repent, then God will take their power and strength and give it to a foreign land that knows Him not. These foreigners will shame and humiliate Israel, inflicting God’s punishment on them.
This is humiliating to Israel on two levels. First, a pagan country would repent while God’s own people would not. Second, they are conquered by a foreign and unbelieving people. The destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and resulted in the loss of the ten tribes living there. Only Judah and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.
Let’s apply this understanding of the sign of Jonah, first to Jesus’ time and then to our own.
In Jesus’ time the sign of Jonah meant that if Israel would not repent and accept the Gospel, God would take it from them and give it to the Gentiles. Jesus says elsewhere to his fellow Jews, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (Matt 21:43). Just as ancient Israel’s refusal to repent led to its destruction by the Assyrians, so Israel’s refusal to repent in Jesus’ time would mean destruction by the Romans (in 70 A.D.). This was prophesied by Jesus in the Mount Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36). According to Josephus, more than a million Jews were lost in this horrible war.
In our time, I suggest that the sign of Jonah may be active. I know that this may be controversial, but it seems to me that many Christians and Catholics in the decadent West have stopped loving life. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and are well below replacement level. We are on our way to aborting and contracepting ourselves right out of existence. God has loosed judgment on us in the form of the sign of Jonah. He seems to be saying this to us: “Fine, if you do not love life and are not zealous for the faith I have given you, then disaster is upon you. Others in this world still do appreciate larger families and are zealous for their faith. And even if they (like the Assyrians of old) are not Christian, I will use them to humble and punish you. They will grow and increase while you decrease. Perhaps when you are punished by a people who do not respect your religious liberty, you will repent and begin to love life.”
In the European Union today, the birth rate is about 1.6 children per woman. Globally, Muslim women average 2.9 children. Do the math and realize that Europe as we have known it is coming to an end. In the United States the birth rate is 1.8 children per woman. In general, the Catholic world in the West is in decline, both in terms of our birth rates and our zeal for the faith. We are surely being diminished by our culture of death and decadent sloth.
Is it the sign of Jonah upon us today in the decadent West? You decide.
With evidence of her son's alleged miraculous healing boxed and sealed in front of a portrait of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Bonnie Engstrom gives a reading at a 2011 Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, Ill. (Credit: Tom Dermody/The Catholic Post via CNS.)
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the fresco of the Eucharistic adoration of angels on the ceiling of the church Chiesa di Santo Tomaso, Turin, painted by N. Arduino (1938). (Photo credit: Shutterstock)