The Sign of Jonah

by Tricia Gates Brown


Matthew 12:41-42: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Testing Jesus, leaders ask him for a sign. And as he’s sometimes wont to do, Jesus challenges them with an obscure teaching, saying they will only receive the “sign of Jonah.” Jesus himself will be the sign, holed up for three days in the belly of the Earth—just like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Then he offers the words above, proclaiming that outsiders like the Ninevites, even the Queen of Sheba will stand in judgment over the present generation because at least the outsiders recognized wisdom when it stopped to tap them on the back. The passage has much the same flavor as the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22: fiery talk of judgement, the hapless outsiders who get in before the expected ones because they recognize something good when it goes down.

Last year a Mennonite church in Harrisonburg, Virginia decided to produce yard signs reading, “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” proclaiming the sentiment in English, Spanish and Arabic—the dominant languages in their community (to date, they have sent out 50,000 signs). In an interview, the pastor of the congregation told how the signs impacted him personally when he wrecked his bicycle in front of the Harrisonburg Islamic Center. Looking up from where he crashed, he saw the very sign his church had produced displayed on the Islamic Center’s lawn. It brought him comfort—knowing he would be helped at the center if needed. Apparently he sensed how it feels to be positioned as an outsider in need, and to be greeted with welcome.

What some Christian churches had not understood of Jesus’ teachings on hospitality, the Islamic Center clearly embraced.

I was recently at a meeting about human-rights awareness in a small town near my home. The group organized to support Latinos is our community currently under threat by policies of the Trump Administration. Many personalities and walks of life were represented in the room, but a tinge of ideological homogeneity was apparent in the group that is familiar at social-activist gatherings. When a conservative pastor chimed in to offer generous, concrete support for the group’s efforts, saying he had come to learn how to form a sanctuary church, I wasn’t sure how the group would receive him. I’d witnessed discussions among other such groups that slant Christian-averse, especially when the Christianity at issue is conservative. But the reception this pastor received was pure gratitude, goodness, inclusion. The room of activists gave him a round of applause. What the meeting-goers said they believed about compassion, community, and making space shined forth in how they treated a conservative Christian pastor—in that context, an outsider.

When non-Christians stand up to speak in Christian churches, are they lovingly embraced?

During this past month of Lent and Holy Week, I heard again the “passion story,” narratives about Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, resurrection. For the first time, the detail that jumped out at me was this: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him’” (Matthew 27: 19). Another example of an outsider, Pilate’s wife even, who could see the truth when those who dragged Jesus before her husband could not. She was open enough for Spirit to speak to her in dream, though she had no relationship with Jesus and knew nothing about him—even when those who travelled with Jesus and sat to hear his teaching could not.

The stories Jesus tells about outsiders who get it when insiders don’t, seem close to home these days. I see many people waking up to the needs of neighbors and helping in self-emptying ways, as Jesus taught. I see people standing up for the marginalized all around them, whether racially profiled and unjustly incarcerated black men, or elderly people dependent on Meals on Wheels for nutritional and psychological sustenance. And a great majority of the people who “get” the mercy and generosity that Jesus taught are not Christians. On the other hand, I see many church people supporting hard-fisted policies that blame the poor for not having money. I hear them herald the need to deport undocumented immigrants despite breaking up families, despite the racialized slant of our immigration system; I hear them cheer on bombings despite Jesus’ clear call to peacemaking; I see them rally behind a fatuous plan to build walls that will not only decimate inter-national and family relationships, but ecosystems birthed by a loving creator; I hear them dismiss the compulsive lying of our president as a mere stylistic flaw. Many other Christians act compassionately in their personal lives, their interpersonal relationships, yet on the national level are willing to support almost any leader who will oppose abortion, even if that leader is the antithesis of compassion.

There is something incredibly wrong here.

I resist people who simple-mindedly blame Christians for the distressing turn our country has taken, employing the same scapegoating they claim to despise. If given the chance, I speak out when I hear this kind of stereotyping of Christians. I call attention to the bastions of Christians who are standing up for justice and speaking up for those under the boot of the “domination system.” I know many of these people personally. But I too wonder why a vast component of American Christians (a majority?) seems bamboozled and complicit in deepening bigotry and greed and oppression, at least according to voting statistics. At times, I despair of it.

Who are the “Ninevites” and “Queens of the South” these days—outsiders who recognize the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings and turn in the right direction even when the self-titled Christ-followers do not? How can we who call ourselves followers of Jesus look up from the three-ring circus that has become American Christianity and acknowledge the outsiders who have so much to teach us?


First published at The Episcopal Café