When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’
The Book of Jonah is a delightful and amusing book – and short: only a few pages. The introduction to it in the Jerusalem Bible calls it “a droll adventure…and its doctrine is one of the peaks of the Old Testament…. Broadminded, it rejects a too rigid interpretation of prophecy…. It rejects, too, a narrow racialism…. All the characters of this story are likeable, the pagan sailors, the king, the populace, even the animals of Niniveh…. We are on the threshold of the Gospel.”
A “droll adventure” it may be, but the drollery was lost on the early Christian writers. Gregory Nazianzen (4th century) called Jonah’s antics “utterly absurd and stupid and unworthy of credit, not only for a prophet but even for any sensible person.” Augustine (5th century) said the book was a cause of “much jest and much laughter to pagans,” but not, he thought, to Christians. Some of these sombre Fathers, however, could not avoid being themselves unintentionally amusing. Jerome (5th century) noted that when the sailors tossed Jonah overboard into the sea “the text does not say they seized him or that they threw him in, but that they took him, and carried him as one deserving respect and honour.” And Cassiodorus (6th century) said that for Jonah the whale’s belly was “a house of prayer, a harbour, a home amid the waves, a happy resource at a desperate time.” Paulinus of Nola (5th century) alone made an insightful remark: “What a worthy prison for God’s holy runaway! He was captured on the very sea by which he had sought to flee.” That's how we all get caught: by our own efforts to escape from what we have to do.
Someone tried to persuade me that Jesus never laughed, since it is nowhere recorded in the gospels that he did. Non sequitur. Laughter is so much part of being human that if he had never laughed, that surprising fact would surely have been recorded. The capacity for laughter – risibilitas, the mediaevals called it – is so peculiar to humans, that it could be a test of whether some creature was human. Hyenas and kookaburras only make a noise that happens to sound like human laughter. Yet there are many instances in Christian literature (in the Rule of St Benedict, for example) where laughter is frowned on. They probably meant silly noisy laughter.
It is easy to imagine Jesus as a young man laughing at the antics of Jonah, and the animals doing penance, and Jonah arguing heatedly with God (God: “Are you right to be angry?” Jonah: “I have every right to be angry!”)
In today’s passage, Jesus uses Jonah as a headline for his own preaching. That is how close we are to the Gospel. Don’t go to bed tonight without reading it!
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