While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11:29).
To understand what Jesus means we need to understand the sign of Jonah. Jonah was sent by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, to call them to repent from their wicked ways. The Jews not only considered Nineveh to be a place of decadence, wickedness, and godlessness, but the military of Assyria had invaded Israel and eventually conquered the northern kingdom around 721 BC. We can understand Jonah’s initial refusal to follow God’s lead. Not only did he not want to go to Nineveh, but Jonah also wanted God to punish and destroy them. Those who have read the Book of Jonah, know that Jonah finally acquiesced, and within hours of his proclamation to the citizens, including the king, they repented and God showed them mercy.
Jesus draws a parallel between the people of Nineveh and his listeners. The people of Nineveh heard and repented to a reluctant messenger. The Ninevites, Gentiles, the sworn enemies of Israel, received God’s mercy when they repented. Now, in their midst was one greater than Jonah, the Son of God, and they were demanding of him a sign. The sign of Jonah was repentance. Jesus, from the beginning of his public ministry, preached the same: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
We would do well to listen to Jesus’ message. Repentance is a foundational spiritual discipline. We are called to consistently examine our conscience and to come to accept that we live in a fallen world. This is not a pessimistic view. This is an awareness of the reality of our present condition.
By accepting that we live in a fallen world, that there is only so much that we can do by ourselves, we will begin to recognize that we do need a savior. The next step that we can make is to acknowledge that we need to repent and turn back to him who can save us. For apart from him, we can do nothing, yet with God, all things are possible.
St Mother Teresa recognized the need for Jesus and stressed this when she taught her novices that she was not interested in numbers, she was not interested in having a branch of social workers. She and those who followed Jesus were to be missionaries of God’s charity. They were to serve Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor. To do so they participated in daily Mass for an hour so they could bring Jesus to those they encountered that day. After returning from their time of service they participated in adoration for an hour. Empowered and renewed by Jesus, blessed by his mercy and love, they could serve Jesus in those they met in the harshest of conditions.
The Gospel message today is clear. We are not so much to seek signs but to seek Jesus. By emptying ourselves of our preconceived notions and opening our hearts and minds to follow his lead and being conformed to his life, we can be about doing God’s work. As long as we stay connected to him, he will guide and give us the means to accomplish that which he sends us to do.
We empty ourselves by repenting from our own selfish pursuits and accepting the invitation of Jesus to be the center of our lives, the very source of our thoughts, words, and actions. For it is, “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name” (Romans 1:5).