The sign of Jonas

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Matthew

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In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us about the necessity of perseverance in the work of salvation.

At that time, certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered Jesus, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation. Matthew 12:38-45

The Pharisees and scribes in this passage are like a lot of people today, a lot of people throughout history, both Christian and non-Christian, who want God to prove Himself to them by some kind of flashy miracle that is worldly, spectacular, and, ultimately, empty. The Lord brushes aside their foolishness and tells them that the sign He will give them is His own resurrection from the dead.   If by the testimony of the Prophets they cannot recognize the One Who is already among them, and if they will not believe even though He should rise from the dead, what good will signs and wonders do them?   As Father Abraham tells the Rich Man in Luke 16, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (St. Ignaty Brianchaninov wrote an important essay on this theme, which you can find at

Several years ago we had a parishioner, now reposed in the Lord, who had returned to the practice of Orthodoxy in old age.  After many years of non-churchly living, he began reading the Gospel and praying every day, and he prayed for many other people as well. He was amazed and touched, continually, by the miracle of the Holy Fire that occurs in Jerusalem every year on Great Saturday, and he never tired of watching YouTube videos of this stupendous occurrence. He would frequently ask me, “How can people see the Holy Fire and not believe in Christ?”   I would answer him, “Because their hearts are not open, and so it does not matter what they see before their very eyes.” It had not occurred to him that his reading the Gospel and praying every day was a far greater miracle than the Holy Fire.

After rebuking the Pharisees’ unbelief and their worldly desire for a spectacular miracle, the Lord gives a solemn warning to those who do believe: We must be sober and watchful over our own spiritual state, lest we fall back into sin after our conversion and we become even worse than we were before our conversion. St. Theophan the Recluse explains it this way:

In every person who lives unrepentant in sin, there lives a demon, as if in a house, who takes charge over everything within him. When by the grace of God such a sinner comes to contrition over his sins, repents, and ceases to sin – the demon is cast out from him. At first the demon does not disturb the one who has repented because, in the beginning, there is much fervor within him which burns demons like fire and repulses them like an arrow. But then, when fervor begins to grow cold, the demon approaches from afar with its suggestions, throws in memories about former pleasures, and calls the person to them. If the penitent does not take care, his sympathy will soon pass to a desire for sin. If he does not come to his senses and return to his former state of soberness, a fall is not far off. The inclination for sin and the decision to commit it are born from desire – the inner sin is ready, and the outward sin is only waiting for a convenient occasion. When an occasion presents itself, the sin will be accomplished. Then the demon will enter again and begin to drive a person from sin to sin even faster than before. The Lord illustrated this with the story about the return of the demon into the clean, swept house. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 139-140

There are several things to note here. The first is that the Lord’s words do not make any sense unless one accepts that an unrepentant person has a demon living in him. This is not figurative but literal. Apart from faith and baptism, human beings are naturally (that is, according to fallen nature) in spiritual communion with demons. Until one believes this, one is not even at square one of an Orthodox understanding of conversion and spiritual life. One reason why we, who do profess the Faith and are baptized, fall back into sin, inviting the “seven worse” back into our lives, is that we do not have a lively appreciation of this stark reality.

The next thing to note about St. Theophan’s words is that a penitent is usually tempted to stop being penitent when the fervor of conversion – either that of his initial conversion or of a conversion following a good confession and change of life after Baptism – wears off. So, to be wise warriors, we have to anticipate this moment of danger, and say to ourselves ahead of time, “The Lord is giving me this obvious grace of fervor and zeal now, but it will inevitably wear off, and then I must resolve to go on fighting sin even if I do not feel like it.”   When the first moment of slackness comes, and desire comes knocking at the door, we will say, “Aha, there it is!” and force ourselves to fight, begging the Lord for mercy and for a return of our spirit of zeal.   Remember how St. Anthony the Great struggled all of one night against demons until he was almost dead, and when the Lord’s presence finally relieved him, he asked, “Lord, where were you all night?” The Lord answered, “I was here all along, but I wanted to see your struggle.”   The times of struggle without consolation are inevitable for all of us, and we must make a firm resolve to be courageous. In His good time, the Lord will give us consolation and renewed strength.

Finally, note that St. Theophan links the inclination to sin and the decision to sin to desire.  We have to kill our love of pleasing ourselves, which is the basic reason why the Church enjoins us to fast and to watch over our senses. The entire effort of the advertising industry which dominates all of our news, entertainment, and social media is directed towards cultivating sensuality, pleasing ourselves, and feeling sorry for ourselves:   “You deserve a break today.” “Have it your way.” “You need this.”   By accepting such thoughts, we forge for ourselves unbreakable chains of slavery to sin; we become paralyzed and unable to act according to God’s will. Those who spoil themselves also tend to spoil their children, and thus spiritual death is passed from one generation to the next.

Let us then resolve to flee quickly to the saving tribunal of confession and repentance, to preserve the spirit of zeal and keep fighting when we do not feel like it, and to avoid constantly pleasing ourselves as we would avoid a poisonous snake.  The miracle of true and lasting repentance, that is, the resurrection of the soul, will take place continually in our hearts, and we will have no need of spectacular signs and wonders.   The sign of Jonas – the Resurrection of Christ – will be all that we need.

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