There is someone far greater than Jonah here
Jesus said to his detractors:
This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.
We typically take these words as referring to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale, and then by analogy, to Christ’s death, three days in the tomb, and resurrection. Of course, that is an obvious inference for us to make, but not for the people Jesus was speaking to at the time. I think Jesus was referring to more than just his passion, for there were plenty of signs his listeners should have heeded, then and there, but they did not, because their minds and hearts were closed.
Seeing with the heart is what the tale of Jonah is all about. We can observe this by comparing and contrasting the Lord’s mission and attitudes with those of Jonah.
There are three signs Jesus’ listeners missed, which had been related to them in the story of Jonah.
The first sign was repentance and conversion. That was the central message of Christ’s call from the beginning and it was also the call to Nineveh. Ironically, the Ninevites perceived their hearkening to conversion, while whimsical Jonah, the messenger God sent them, did not. In the case of Jesus’ preaching, it was slightly different. Jesus was fully identified with his mission, unlike Jonah, and for that reason, he won the hearts of many followers, who repented and amended their lives. That was one sign Christ’s detractors overlooked: they did not heed the message or grasp the significance of their own people’s conversion; so, they did not see Jesus for the man of integrity that he was; hence, they did not recognize him as greater than Jonah.
The second sign was mercy. Jesus did say, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice,” meaning that he would not accept the latter without the former. In this regard, he lead by example. By preaching mercy and delivering it, he was consistent with the central message in the Book of Jonah. God shocked Jonah by sparing Nineveh to the extent that Jonah was scandalized and he rebelled. Once again, Jesus shows himself to be greater than Jonah. He was so consistent in delivering mercy, that he would lay his life down for it, instead of laying down and moping, like Jonah. The Lord’s detractors could not see this, because of their hard heads and hearts.
The third sign was acceptance and sacrifice. The people of Nineveh accepted their sentence and they went out of their way to make reparations for their sins to avert that sentence. And they were spared. What a blow that was for Jonah! In contrast to the people his preaching delivered from destruction, he could not accept it when God showed them mercy. Christ gave more than Jonah: Those who accepted him were elevated to become children of God (John 1:12).
Jesus always takes it a step further. He sacrificed with and for his people. He prayed for their conversion and for God to have mercy on them. Moreover, he made the ultimate act of acceptance and sacrifice, first, when he accepted his Father’s will during his agony in the garden, then, when he followed through with it. By accepting his death on the cross, he made the ultimate sacrifice so that God would show mercy on his people. Not only did God spare them, he gave them the gift of eternal life, as Christ promised.
Christ embodies the signs of Jonah by living them to perfection and delivering visible fruits for everyone to see. His message and life were clear and consistent. Repentance, conversion of heart, mercy, acceptance of God’s will and the sacrifice that entails were the visible fruits in people’s lives for everyone to see. The people of Nineveh who converted after hearing Jonah’s word — from the most inconstant man in the entire Bible! — would have embraced Jesus Christ. They would have condemned the people of Jesus’ time, who did not see this when it was right there in front of them.
Spiritual reading from the Bible is an excellent practice, especially during Lent. When you do this, pray for the Lord to open the eyes of your mind and heart to the signs he wants you to see.