The sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32) is a sign of contradiction. That is, the sign mirrors the contradiction of a people called to prophesy who, instead, flee their calling. The Book of Jonah, as part of the Hebrew Scriptures, is a parable that speaks to a prophetic people, but it also speaks to many others in many ways, because Jesus said that anyone seeking a sign that would cancel their doubts and fears will only find Jonah, a fearful and despairing man who himself became a prophecy in virtue of his contradictions.
The Book of Jonah is a funny story: it makes us laugh in order to make us think. Jesus refers to Jonah several times in the gospels, but each time the meaning is different. We can suppose that Jesus himself didn’t totally clarify the meanings, because he wanted to provoke the disciples to question their own presuppositions.
We who listen to the gospel also need to question what we take for granted. We are a bit like the drug-dealer Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s opera Porgy ’n’ Bess, when he sings: “I takes the gospel whenever ’tis poss’ble, but with a grain of salt.” When the gospel challenges us — not just as individuals but also as a faith community — and God tells us to go East, we are likely to go West, like Jonah. When Jonah was ordered to go prophesy in Nineveh, he took for granted that the Ninevites would not believe him and he sailed away. Then the whale caught him and brought him back to land, and he did end up in Nineveh, whose people understood his message better than he did and performed a fast. Jonah was angry with them and with God, because they turned from their sins and God did not punish them.
What can this say to a church that celebrates Lent? Maybe we need to substitute other names for the Queen of the south (who came to hear Solomon) and the Ninevites (who listened to Jonah) — say, people of other religious traditions who experience God or the Spirit, or people of good will with a social conscience that makes them work for justice. When Pope Francis tells us that today is not an epoch of change but a change of epoch; when he places before our conscience the rapid and drastic environmental changes taking place on our planet-home and the urgent demand that we act on these facts, are we going to ship out?
If we believe in Jesus, we cannot escape our prophetic responsibilities, but if doubts and fears make us want to do so, Jesus offers a remedy: he makes us one body and one spirit, living as a sign of Jonah for all humankind. If we take the remedy, we shall learn to trust and hope, and this will be our prophecy.