“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Mt 12:39).
Jonah is the prophet best known as the one who spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale, great fish, or sea monster, depending on your scriptural translation. Jonah ended up in that predicament because he refused to follow God’s direction to speak his message of forgiveness to the sworn enemies of Israel, the Ninevites. It would be like God asking one of us to fly out to the Middle East to meet with members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda and invite them to repent. Not only would we not believe they would want to repent, would we want them to even if they would? Also, whether they did or didn’t, would we be able to return from such a meeting with our heads intact?
These were probably some of the issues running through Jonah’s mind when he refused to follow God’s will. After swimming to shore, Jonah overcame his resistance and followed the command of the Lord, kept his head on his shoulders, and the people of Nineveh repented. Happy, happy, joy, joy! Not exactly. At the repentance of his enemies and God’s expression of mercy and forgiveness, Jonah said to God, “This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I knew that you were a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish” (Jonah 4:2)”. Jonah shows his hardness of heart in that he did not want to go to Nineveh because he did not want his enemies to receive God’s forgiveness!
The scribes and the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign and the sign of Jonah is what he gives them: The Ninevites, Gentiles, non-Jews, were willing to repent at the word of Jonah, and those scribes and Pharisees questioning Jesus, God’s chosen, were not willing to repent at the urging of one greater than Jonah, the Son of God, who was in their midst.
Jesus announced his ministry, as recorded in Mark 1:15, with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” That is again our invitation today, to examine our conscience by asking God to help us to recognize his presence among us, then reflect on what good God has done in our lives and give him thanks. Review the last day or two to see where God has called us to act. Where did we answer his call, where did we, like Jonah resist or refuse?
Someone greater than Jonah is in our midst today, he is Jesus the Christ. May we be willing to allow his love, mercy, and forgiveness to fill us and to soften our hardness of hearts. Pope Francis shared that, “God’s mercy is understood only when it has been poured out onto us, onto our sins, onto our miseries”. Once we are willing to repent and be healed we will be more willing to allow his love and mercy to flow through us to all those we meet in person and online. Even, and especially, those for whom we would rather not: those who get under our skin, grate on our nerves, and/or those who mirror to us our own biases and prejudices.
Suffering is a very concrete and harsh reality. That is something we all agree on whether we believe in God or not. The question is how to we respond to suffering. We can often fall into the response of denial, despair, covering our suffering with temporary, apparent goods or pushing forward to fix our situations or wish our problems away, but none of these work very well for the long term. Jonah found that out very well.
The answer Jesus gives us is the Cross. We enter into the suffering. Jesus did not heal everyone, nor does he do so today, but what he did, does, and calls us to do, is to draw close. True healing comes from the journey into and through suffering to the other side. There is no resurrection without the Cross. When we enter into our suffering we will not be alone. We will find Jesus waiting for us with his arms wide open to embrace us and journey with us. This is what we are to offer others as well, not an answer to their suffering or a silver bullet fix all, but our love and our presence to remain side by side and walk together. This is where God’s healing and mercy happen.
Pope Francis blesses a prisoner during his 2015 visit to Philadelphia – Photo credit – CNS photo/Paul Haring