The Book of the Prophet Jonah is a comical, action adventure tale with a serious message about what God wants for the sinner. Many think that God wants to destroy the sinner and prophets are sent to remind folks of the inescapable hell fire that is coming.
The Book of the Prophet Jonah has a different message in mind.
For those of you who are familiar with the Book of the Prophet Jonah, you will remember that Jonah is the most reluctant prophet in the history of Israel. Called by God to preach repentance to the enemies of Israel, he cuts and runs, literally running in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go.
When God intervenes and gets Jonah where he needs him to be, the reluctant prophet scarcely whispers his message of repentance and becomes the most successful prophet ever- not only do the people repent, but every living creature in the city.
The message? The lesson? What God desires most of all is the restoration of the sinner, not their destruction, and further, that God is willing to forgive even those we might deem least worthy of forgiveness.
Jonah finds this lesson hard to take. We shouldn’t simply pay lip service to this biblical insight. It’s tough stuff, especially when those who are on the receiving end of God’s forgiveness are those who have hurt us.
God’s willingness to forgive and his desire to restore the sinner is precisely what the Lord Jesus himself is making reference to in his Gospel.
What is the sign of Jonah? It is the sign that is revealed in the aftermath of the cross, whereas God manifests the intensity of his desire to restore sinners in his willingness to insert himself into the depths of the consequences of our sins- but also more than this, to forgive what is essentially unforgiveable. The cross is not just a quaint symbol of a faith based non-for-profit- it is a creation of humanity’s cruelty which we impose not only on each other, but on God.
In response to this, God acts and this is where the sign of the cross becomes so surprising. What was deserved because of the cross is not what is delivered. Instead God acts through the cross to reveal just how willing he is to forgive us.
The cross does not render repentance unnecessary, but intensifies the experience. God is willing to receive us, to forgive us, to go to the absolute limit to set things right. Why do we resist? Our resistance only makes things difficult for ourselves, not for God, who has demonstrated on the cross that his power far exceeds any of the means we might employ to resist him- even a means as cruel and sinister as nailing him to a cross!
In Christ, many who were considered to be unforgiveable or unworthy are set in right relationship with God and offered a share in his divine life. The boundaries that were set for membership in Israel were opened and the Gentiles came in and were claimed by Christ as his people. This shocked and surprised. We are the beneficiaries of this gift. And the gift is the “sign of Jonah” that Christ refers to in his Gospel.
All this was made possible by repentance, a willingness to accept that we needed to be set right, a humble acknowledgement of what we have done and failed to do, an acceptance that one’s life would henceforth be different and we would live in a new and different way.
This happens concretely for us in the Sacrament of Penance, in which we repent, receive the forgiveness of Christ and are restored in relationship to God and his Church. The Sacrament of Penance is a privileged moment of participation in the mystery of the Cross.
Unfortunately, too many of us have become as reluctant to receive that Sacrament of Penance as Jonah was to receive his mission. And it is for this reason that for so many of us the “sign of cross” remains opaque and our understanding of it’s meaning unclear. Like Jonah, we refuse what God wants us to receive.
We cannot see the sign of the cross and understand its meaning if we are unwilling ourselves to receive it.