It’s been 7 days since Ash Wednesday and unless we gave up bathing for Lent (eww...) that physical reminder is gone from our foreheads for another year. Yet, the Church, in her wisdom does not allow us to forget the lesson.
When Jonah was first called by God, he wanted to avoid it. We probably felt that way too when we realized Lent was getting close. But just like Jonah found himself unavoidably in Nineveh so we are in Lent. We’re here, so we might a well do it right.
So, how do we do Lent right? Of course the right disciplines for Lent are different for every person and so it isn’t my purpose here to give any kind of listing for what specific things you should be doing. Rather I would like to point out nature of the response of the Ninevites and suggest that we do likewise.
As Jonah was proceeding through Nineveh announcing that in 40 days it would be destroyed the people of Nineveh, who obviously did not want to be destroyed, responded to his voice with fasting and putting on of sackcloth. What I think we should note is the reason given for their repentance. The passage does not say that they repented and put on sackcloth because they believed Jonah but rather because they believed God. Jonah clearly was the one who was speaking yet it was God that they believed. They recognized that it was God speaking through Jonah that they ought to listen to and they did so to their own great benefit.
In today’s Gospel Jesus makes reference to the story of Jonah for a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to rebuke them for seeking a dramatic sign to “prove” him. Jesus’ ministry isn’t about flashy signs. The Jews would have known this story and gotten his point immediately. The second purpose, related to the first though more subtle, is that he identifies himself with Jonah. We might say that Christ is like Jonah in that he calls for repentance, but it would be more accurate to say that Jonah prefigures and points to Christ. Either way, Christ is calling the people of Israel to repent but not just them, us as well.
Jonah was not God yet God spoke through him and the people listened. Christ is God and does the will of his Father in heaven and so we ought to listen to Him all the more. In this season of Lent let us be quick like the Ninevites to repent and turn from our former selves so that we may not be destroyed by our sin but that God may show us his mercy.