The Sign of Jonah and Asking Questions to Keep from Finding Things Out

The Sign of Jonah and Asking Questions to Keep from Finding Things Out July 21, 2015

The gospel yesterday was about Jesus refusing to give a sign:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Mt 12:38–42).

It is, curiously, coupled with the reading from Exodus in which Pharaoh hardens his stupid heart one last time and goes after Israel with horse and chariot, trapping them on the shores of the Red Sea (and leading, of course, to catastrophe for Egypt and overwhelming deliverance for Israel).

It’s easy for the skeptic to say “Jesus refuses to work a sign because he *can’t* work any sign.  He’s blowing smoke here.”  The problem, of course, is that Jesus has already worked any number of signs and will go on to work more.

Which, of course, raises the opposite question: why does Jesus say “No sign shall be given” when in fact he’s given lots of signs and will keep doing so.

I think the point is that Jesus is not talking about his capacity to do miracles at all, but about his audience’s refusal to see them.  In short, you can’t do signs for people who can’t or won’t read signs.  A stop sign means nothing to my dog.  Even so obvious a sign as a pointing finger means only “Sniff my finger” to my dog.  The trouble for the Pharisees is not that Jesus can’t or won’t work a miracle.  The trouble is that when he does they see only what they insist on seeing: a man who blasphemously claims to forgive sins when he heals the paralytic, a man who is worthy of death for healing a withered hand on the Sabbath, a man whom they have already decided is worthy of death when he heals the blind man.  In short, as Jesus tells them, “If you were blind you would have no sin.  But because you say ‘We see’, your sin remains.”

Robert Benchley says there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.  I divide the world into two kinds of people: those who ask questions to find things out and those who ask questions to keep from finding things out.  The Pharisees in this gospel were asking questions to keep from finding out who Jesus was, because they were certain they already knew: a fraud and a blasphemer.  Like Pharaoh, they had stupidly and sinfully hardened their hearts because they were sure they were the Greatest Jews of All Time.  And like Pharaoh, they were in fact, given a sign as their victim passed through the waters of death (just like Jonah) and was vindicated while they were thrown into confusion, not by him, but by their own pride and folly.  God does not confuse evil.  Evil confuses itself.


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