It is a fact that preaching to those Christians who are supposedly active in church and well informed of their faith is the most difficult. We become numb or blind to our sins. We do not see ourselves requiring any real conversion because we are already converted. Whilst we do not say it openly, most of us do not think we are real sinners. If anyone who needs conversion it is the others. We are quick to judge the sins of others but are blind to our own.
Hence, we can understand the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. Our Lord had performed many miracles. He had fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. He had healed the sick and cast out demons from those who were possessed. After all that He had done, the religious leaders accused Him of corroborating with Beelzebul. (Lk 11:14-23) The Jews themselves in today’s gospel reading were too skeptical of our Lord. This made the Lord remark, “This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.” What other signs do the Jews need to believe in Him? Jesus however refused to give them signs, presumably, spectacular signs that they wanted to see, before they would believe. For Jesus, He did not perform miracles to command attention or cower people into believe. Rather, the miracles were always performed out of mercy and compassion for those who were suffering. It was not the miracles that Jesus wanted to demonstrate but the love and mercy of God in the healing of the sick and the deliverance of the possessed.
Instead, the Lord gave two examples for them to draw their own conclusion. “The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” The story of Jonah which we just read is a satire written by a Jew on the narrowmindedness of his fellow Jews. The exclusivity of the Jews with regard to their being the Chosen People of God excluded people of all races and nations. Only they were worthy to be saved whereas the infidels were all condemned to perdition. This explains why Jonah refused to be sent to the Ninevites to call them to conversion. Not only did he consider them to be undeserving of being saved but because the Assyrians were known for their evil and cruelty. They were the most hated enemy of the Jews. If we were Jonah, we too would not go and save our enemies. In fact, we would wish them destruction and annihilation from the face of the earth.
But today the scripture readings underscore that God wants all to be saved. St Paul in his letter to Timothy wrote, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:1-4) Indeed, we cannot be so narrow-minded as to think that God wants to save only a particular race in the world. The goodness of God and His all-embracing love for humanity who are all His creatures is beyond what we human beings can imagine. His only criterion is that we repent of our evil deeds and believe in Him.
However, Jonah, like the Jews who marginalized the Gentiles, did not want to save the Ninevites. Jonah reluctantly went to preach to them as commanded by the Lord. He ran away from this mission the first time. As a result, he was thrown into the sea to calm the storm so that those on board the ship could be rescued. However, God rescued him by allowing him to take refuge in the belly of the whale for three days and nights. God gave him a second chance. Unfortunately, Jonah, like the Jews, failed to see how merciful God had been towards them. In spite of their constant infidelity, the Lord continued to rescue them from their enemies. God gave them more than a second chance. God always forgave them when they repented.
God wanted to extend the same grace to the Ninevites as well, just as in the New Testament, Jesus and St Paul reached out to the Gentiles. His grace is not for some exclusive race only. So God sent Jonah to preach to his enemies, hoping that they would be converted. Unlike the Jews who remained arrogant and refused to recognize our Lord when He preached the gospel, the Ninevites repented immediately. Their repentance was manifested not just in putting on sackcloth and ashes, but they stopped doing evil. The King decreed, “All are to put on sackcloth and call on God with all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil behaviour and the wicked things he has done.” So it was more than just an external repentance, unlike the scribes and pharisees Jesus condemned in the gospel. They performed pious actions just to impress people but their hearts were unconverted. Indeed, the king did what Isaiah expected of his people when he called them to repentance. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (cf Isa 58:5-7)
What was even more dramatic was not just the way they manifested their sorrow for their sins, but everyone was involved in the fasting and repentance. “From the greatest to the least.” When “the news reached the king of Nineveh” he “rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes.” Few kings would publicly demonstrate their humility before the almighty. Among the Israelite kings, many of the prophets who prophesied and called for repentance were condemned, put in prison and suffered persecution. Instead of repenting, they resented the call of the prophets. But not for this Ninevite King who led the people in repentance through fasting and wearing of sackcloth. Interestingly, even the animals were made to repent with the people. “Men and beasts, herds and flocks, are to taste nothing; they must not eat, they must not drink water.” They put on sackcloth, ashes and fasted as well. Such was the heartfelt response of the people to the Word of God that was preached by Jonah.
The Israelites and the Jews on the contrary were indifferent and ignored the Word of God when it was preached to them. They refused to repent, simply because they did not feel that they needed repentance. They were too blind and superstitiously clung to their chosen status. Not for the Ninevites. They were more receptive to the truth than God’s own people. Although they might not have had faith in the God of Israel, they had faith in God. They believed in God and in the message of the prophet. Hence, they repented sincerely and immediately. They believed and trusted in God’s mercy even though they were not guaranteed that their fasting would stop the punishment of God. They said, “Who knows if God will not change his mind and relent, if he will not renounce his burning wrath, so that we do not perish?”
Finally, their humility and response to God contrasts greatly with the way Jonah responded to God’s call to preach the message of repentance to the Ninevites. Jonah acted as if he knew the mind of God towards the Ninevites. This, too, was the arrogance of the Jewish people when it came to knowing God and observing the laws. Christian leaders sometimes also give the impression that they always know the mind of God on specific matters. The truth is that we come to know His mind whilst walking with Him along the way. Only in walking with God each day, can we discover Him and His will in our lives.
This is why the Lord condemned His people for unbelief and the humility to recognize their sins. He said, “On Judgement day the Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here. On Judgement day the men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation and condemn it, because when Jonah preached they repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here.” Jesus is greater than Jonah and wiser than Solomon. He is the Word of God in person. He is the Wisdom of God. Alas, they did not recognize Him and rejected His word. Jesus eventually even gave them the ultimate sign of Jonah when He was put to death and rose on the third day. Still, the Jews did not accept Him. It was the Gentiles that were converted through the mission of St Paul.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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