Proof: Thoughts on the “Sign of Jonah” and what it means for us.


I have always been a fan of those crime scene investigation shows.

CSI, CSI New York, CSI Miami, NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles, NCIS New Orleans and the list goes on.

My favorite was the original but its hard not to love Gibbs and the original NCIS.

In every one of those shows, the proof of guilt comes out of the lab.

Fingerprints identified in a moment.

DNA analysis returns within the hour.

Everything is recorded on a camera somewhere.

Paint chips, tire tracks, footprints, hair samples, pollen, bugs, blood spatter among many other things are all analyzed with super high-tech equipment.

So, when all the lab work is done, the proof is absolute.

We know who did it.

No doubt.

This portrayal of crime investigation is, of course, highly exaggerated.

Which causes problems for real life prosecutors in court.

Juries, primed by these high-tech procedurals, expect to see evidence of guilt demonstrated by absolute scientific proof.

And when there is no scientific proof, which is pretty common, the jury gets confused.


Where are those CSI lab folks?

Where is Abby Scuito?

When the jury does not see Abby, or someone like her, they have concerns.

How do we decide?

How do we know for sure?

They want Abby to tell them what to do.

It doesn’t matter that all the evidence the prosecution offers leaves no reasonable doubt about the guilt of the defendant.

Yet, often the jury has trouble making a decision based on what is clearly right in front of them.

What the jury wants is a “sign” from somewhere or someone that tells them what they should believe.

Where is the DNA?

Where is the video?

Where are the fingerprints?

Where is the tire tread match?

And if we go back to our old friend, Perry Mason (Raymond Burr, not the new one), where is the witness stand confession?

That would make it pretty easy.

Jesus had to deal with such things.

That is what we see in our brief scripture reading today.

Matthew 16: 1-4

16The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” 3And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.

The Pharisees and Sadducees want a “sign”.

A “sign” from heaven, invoked by Jesus, that proves Jesus is sent by God.

Jesus is … annoyed.

To understand Jesus annoyance, let me set the stage for this brief encounter.

What has Jesus been up to?

He has healed a multitude of sick people.

He has fed thousands of people with a few fish and loaves – twice!

And of these things the Pharisees and Sadducees seem well aware.

They have seen the sick healed and the multitudes fed.

All at the commands of Jesus.

His words clearly cause things to happen.

He exercises authority over things only God has authority over.

All this to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Looks and sounds like Messiah stuff.

Seems pretty clear.

It’s right there in front of them.

But all that isn’t enough for these religious leaders.

That is not the proof they want.

They wanted something more certain.

They want a “sign” from heaven!

They won’t believe who Jesus is until … what?

They want Jesus to perform some sort of spectacular event that would prove Jesus was Messiah.

That God approved of Jesus.

What might that look like?

We aren’t told.

But if their view of the Messiah was one who would free Israel from Rome, maybe they wanted Jesus to do the things Moses did.

Turn a rod into a snake.

Maybe a couple of plagues.

Turn the River Jordan into a river of blood?

Maybe Abby Scuito shows up with a DNA match between Jesus and God?

But Jesus is unwilling to play that game.

His response?

“You predict what the weather will be by looking at the clouds.

You know how to use your experience and intelligence to analyze what you see and understand what it means.

So, look at what I have done.

You need no more to decide.

You want a sign?

Look at the ‘sign of Jonah’.”

And then he just walks away.

He will not debate with those who simply refuse to see what is right there in front of them.

Healings, feedings and the sign of Jonah.

OK, we know about those healings and feedings, but what exactly is this “sign of Jonah”?

We find it in the short Book of Jonah, one of the 12 Minor Prophets of the Old Testament.

We all kind of know the story.

Devon Serena and her kids acted it out in a video for SBS this past June that is absolutely delightful.

Check it out.

Jonah is a prophet who, like everyone in Israel, hates the Ninevites.

He hates them because they are gentiles, part of Assyria, ancient enemy and conqueror of Israel.

Like all Jews, Jonah prefers they cease to exist.

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that they must repent or be destroyed by God.

Jonah wants nothing to do with this because he prefers Nineveh be destroyed.

So, he flees on a ship in the other direction.

A storm rises and the boat is battered.

Jonah concludes the storm is God’s punishment for his disobedience and in order to save his shipmates, volunteers to be thrown into the sea.

The sailors take him up on it and over the side he goes only to be swallowed by a big fish.

Inside the fish Jonah repents his disobedience and the fish vomits him up onto dry land.

Jonah now decides its best to obey God and heads off to Nineveh.

There he proclaims to the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”

That seems pretty vague.

Maybe they won’t understand or listen.

But much to Jonah’s chagrin, the Ninevites repent.

The Lord has compassion and Nineveh is not destroyed.

Jonah doesn’t like that result and sits outside the city walls and grumbling in the scorching heat.

God grows a plant beside Jonah to give him some shade, but then has the plant destroyed by a worm.

His comfort has been destroyed.

That only made Jonah angrier.

Finally, God asks Jonah why it is so terrible for Jonah to lose the plant that gave him a bit of joy, but it wouldn’t be even more terrible for God to lose the Ninevites who, for whatever reason, Give God a bit of joy?

In other words, God finds joy in all God’s creation and wants all the people, to be rescued from destruction.

Even the Ninevites …

That’s the story.

So, what is the “sign” from this story that Jesus expects the Sadducees and Pharisees to understand?

The most common option is that Jonah was in the belly of the big fish for three days and was then returned to life on dry land.

Sounds like death and resurrection.

That would be Jesus, right?

That is what the Sadducees and Pharisees need to look for.

That’s the sign Jesus offers.

What will that sign tell the Sadducees and Pharissees?

If not that, what might the sign of Jonah have been?

How our Jewish brothers and sisters understand the Story of Jonah might give us a clue.

The Book of Jonah is the only book read in its entirety in a synagogue service and that happens on Yom Kippur the most solemn religious fast of the Jewish year when forgiveness of sins is also of God.

So, to the Jews, the story of Jonah has something to do with the forgiveness of sins in response to repentance.

To me, that seems to make sense.

Jonah and the Ninevites are in conflict with God.

Both repent, Jonah in response to the events that landed him in the fish and the Ninevites in response to Jonah.

After Jonah repents, he is saved from destruction in the belly of the big fish.

After the Ninevites repent, they are saved from destruction as well.

There is an overarching message here.

Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik is Associate Rabbi at Kehilat Jeshurun in New York and an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and he puts it this way:

God is to be found anywhere, at any time. In the words of the American founder John Adams, this doctrine—”of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe,” which Adams took to be “the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization”—constituted the gift of the ancient Hebrews, who alone “had preserved and propagated [it] to all mankind.” It is the lesson taught by the book of Jonah, and its message to all who hear it on Yom Kippur is that we must live our lives accordingly.

In other words, the knowledge of God was given to the Hebrews to be shared with all people as a gift, even gentiles.

Why does Jesus think that the story identifies him?

Why should the Pharisees and Sadducees recognize Jesus in that story?

The Hebrews are to be God’s messengers to the gentiles.

Jonah is the personification of that.  

The Hebrews, for a time, disobeyed and did not pass this gift along.

Again, that’s Jonah.

But God would not be refused and sent Jesus, a Hebrew, to complete the task.

Jesus volunteers to die.

Like Jonah getting thrown into the sea.

But Jesus is resurrected.

Like Jonah getting vomited up onto the land.

And all people are rescued from destruction.

Even Ninevites.

Even us.

The kind of thing Jesus was doing.

Proclaiming the Kingdom of God to all people.

And that is what we are to do, as well.

We can’t be Jesus.

But we can be Jonah.

So, Jesus seems to be saying that he Pharisees and Sadducees they will know who Jesus was and what Jesus when they see that “sign of Jonah”.

But Jesus seems to have noticed something a bit more subtle going on here.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are really not seeking proof.

They are trying to take charge.

I have an image of them smirking and saying, “Look, if you’re such a big deal, why don’t you just call down a plague or something on the Romans to get rid of them?”

“Or maybe just a bolt of lightning on Herod’s head?”

Kind of like what Herod did at Jesus trial, right?

Or what Satan was ding in the wilderness temptations of Jesus.

But Jesus does not take orders from such folks.

Jesus does not do their will

Jesus does God’s will.

Which brings us back to the “sign of Jonah” as an illustration of the resurrection.

Jesus will go through that voluntarily.

And that will be the undeniable proof.

Proof enough for all time.

Don’t need Abby for that.

Well, what do we make of this in 2020?

Like I said before, we can’t be Jesus, but we can be Jonah.

As disciples of Jesus, we are called by God to be Jonah.

We are to go proclaim to the world that God so loved everyone that God sent Jesus here to rescue us from destruction.

And that we are to love God and love each other the same way.

We might not particularly like some of those folks we proclaim that to, and they might not particularly like us.

We are all Ninevites to someone.

But we still do it.

Like Jonah.

Like Jesus.

So, don’t ask for a sign.

We have been given the only sign we need.

Ask for Jesus.

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