Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Lent Week 1 Wednesday

Readings: Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 50/51; Luke 11:29-32

In what does the sign of Jonah consist? For Luke, the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites is the sign for those listening to Jesus. The Queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon’s wisdom and the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s preaching. There is something greater here than either Jonah or Solomon. You ought, then, to listen to him, to Jesus, to live by his wisdom, and to answer his call to repentance.

In Matthew, Jesus brings in the earlier part of Jonah’s adventures and points to his three days in the belly of the fish. This is the sign of Jonah, according to Matthew, a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend lying dead in the tomb. Matthew’s account gives us the stronger imagery and we may be tempted to assume that Luke implies the same thing. There are few biblical images more powerful than that of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.

But for Luke the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the people is the sign. And this clears the way for us to notice something else in Jonah’s experience at Nineveh. Not only do the people repent, but God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them. God’s repentance displeased Jonah exceedingly, we are told, and he was angry.

When Jesus directed his listeners to the sign of Jonah it has to be that the divine mercy shown there is uppermost in his mind. He has come, after all, to show us the Father. The repentance of God in the Book of Jonah anticipates so many of the parables of Jesus in which the justice of God becomes puzzling because swallowed up in God’s mercy. If we feel a bit angry at the prodigal son, or the eleventh-hour labourers who are paid the same as those who worked all day, or at the thought of prostitutes and other public sinners entering the kingdom of heaven before us, then we are in the company of Jonah.

He felt used by God. His mission was a complete success, the whole city repented at his preaching, and still he was angry. This, then, is the sign of Jonah. In calling us to repentance, God is asking us to become like Him. He is always ready to be merciful, to turn towards us. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, the first sign of repentance from the sinner wins God’s attention and mercy. (In fact we believe it would not even be possible without God’s prior attention and mercy.)

Lent is a time of mutual repentance, then, as we turn our hearts to the Father knowing that the Father’s heart is turned towards us. We can be certain of God’s repentance, of God’s willingness to show mercy. Just as God saw from their actions that the Ninevites were turning from their sin, so we have seen from God’s actions that he is turned towards us. What about us then? We must show by our actions that we are answering Jesus’ call to repentance. In helping us to answer that call the Father has given us not just the sign of Jonah but the sign of Jesus.

You can hear this homily being preached here.

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