Jesus said to them, “See, something greater than Jonah is here!” Something greater than Jonah is here?
Let me be honest – when I think of Jonah, I don’t exactly think of greatness.
Our reading from Jonah today starts with, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” for a reason. The first time didn’t go so well. Now to Jonah’s credit, God did give Jonah the hardest conceivable assignment, the original Mission Impossible: to go to the capital city of Assyria, the greatest earthly power in the world – a city with no reason at all to listen to an Israelite prophet. But one must also admit that Jonah is a most unpromising prophet. While most of Israel’s prophets do some hemming and hawing in the face of the call of God (But Lord I am a man of unclean lips; But Lord I am just a boy; B-b-but Lord, I don’t speak so well), they eventually work up the nerve to respond to God’s call. Jonah, however, says nothing and runs in the opposite direction. When told to go east; he goes west. Jonah is more callous and less prayerful than a boat full of pagan sailors.
But the Lord God shows great mercy to this most unpromising prophet, who would almost rather go to a watery grave than go on God’s errand of mercy to Israel’s great enemy.
God gives Jonah a do-over; and so “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
“See, something greater than Jonah is here!” Surely Jesus would have gotten a laugh at this line. What could it possibly mean?
In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah, he is comparing his future death and resurrection on the third day to Jonah’s descent into the waters of death in the belly of the whale and his deliverance. This comparison makes sense, and we see how the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not only like to, but also greater than the sign of Jonah. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us what God plans to do for us. Unlike Jonah, Jesus will take us with him into new and eternal life.
But our evangelist Luke is not Matthew. Luke is not interested in what happens in the belly of the whale. Luke is interested in what Jonah does as a prophet preaching in the midst of an enemy city. But even in his preaching in Nineveh, when he finally arrives, Jonah’s performance is underwhelming. He doesn’t exactly disobey the Lord, but he doesn’t exactly fulfill his mandate either. Having been instructed to preach repentance with urgency, Jonah haphazardly preaches what might be the shortest sermon on record, just 5 words in Hebrew, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” There is nothing here about repentance, and, truly, there is not much urgency either. “Forty days” in prophet speak is an indefinite long period of time, and would therefore be like saying, “No hurry, but someday this city will fall.”
Surprisingly, Jonah, who at this point has already shown himself to be the worst prophet in the Hebrew scriptures, gets results beyond his wildest imagining. His lack of urgency and omission of a message of repentance is made up for by the astoundingly urgent repentance of every man, woman, and child in Nineveh from the king on down – even the animals join in acts of repentance. And so, God in his great mercy repents of what he has in mind for Nineveh, the enemy of his chosen people.
It is not so much Jonah himself who is remarkable – it is the sign of Jonah.
In Jonah, Israel is sent to its enemy on an errand of God’s borderless mercy, and see how the people respond!
In Jesus, God’s mercy comes to humanity, as Paul says, “even while we were enemies”, to bring about a seemingly impossible reconciliation – a reconciliation that includes even the Gentiles. Those who were thought to be enemies have been invited in.
In this season of Lent, we are called to see, something greater than Jonah is here! We are called to turn our gaze upon the cross and the empty tomb to regard God’s unfathomable mercy for all people.
And we are called to repent – to change our minds – even to change our minds about our enemies.
For the truth is that we have all too much in common with Jonah. We are loathe to go with words of mercy into the midst of our enemies. We would rather run the other way – into the arms of those who think like us – who reinforce our own views, who tell us we are right, and important, maybe even prophetic.
What if we were actually meant to repent – to turn around – and to speak merciful words, though they may be imperfect, to those who also, shocking as it may seem, belong to God’s loving embrace?
Perhaps, then, in the here and now, we would see, something greater than Jonah is here.