Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 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. 42 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. 43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Luke 11:24-26, 29-32
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday following Pentecost), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Show Us the Evidence
Matthew places this particular narrative following two Sabbath “violations” in full view of the Pharisees, as well as an accusation from the Pharisees that Jesus exorcises demons by aligning himself with demons. Once again, scholars and Pharisees are questioning Jesus, “What qualifies you? Prove to us who you are by showing us a miracle.” Rightfully so, Jesus does not live to fulfill our curiosity and demands, as he is Lord over our lives, not the other way around. Blinded by following the letter of the law, those demanding a sign from Jesus cannot see him for who he is. Further, the Jews who have already seen many signs performed by Jesus, and have been taught by the prophets who point to Jesus as the Messiah, demanded demonstrations only to build a case against him, not so they could believe. Knowing this, Jesus, somewhat obscurely but still clear enough to his listeners, offers them a “sign” by referencing the prophet Jonah. Why Jonah?
Jonah prefigures the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Like Jonah, three days and nights in the belly of the whale (the Armenian version of Jonah does refer to the creature as a whale), Jesus will soon be three days and nights in the belly of the earth. The parallels don’t stop there. St. Nerses of Lambron, a 12th century Bishop of the Armenian Church, in his commentary on the book of Jonah equates the whale that swallowed Jonah with death. Just as death could not digest Jesus and spit him out, the whale, i.e. death, could not digest Jonah, who is a type of Christ, and so spit him out. As we sing in Badarak, Jesus “trampled down death by death.” Both Jesus and Jonah come out whole, preaching and releasing others from the prison of death. Both Jesus and Jonah descended to Sheol (or Hades), the heart of the earth, the place of the dead. Just as Jesus was resurrected, Jonah was reborn from the waters of the sea, a symbol of chaos, disorder, evil; a symbol of hell, the domain of Satan, foreshadowing the saving waters of baptism redeemed by Jesus in the Jordan River. Interestingly, in the Armenian version of Jonah, the whale is finally translated as Leviathan «վիշապ» in 2:11, a creature also symbolizing chaos; and վիշապ (veeshab) sometimes being used to refer to Satan. Attributed to St. Basil Caesarea, listen to what we pray during the Water Blessing celebrated on the Feast of Theophany:
You made the heavens and the earth and the sea out of bodiless and formless chaotic darkness…And through his beneficence he gathered all and brought them to the River Jordan. And he saw the fearful dragon nestled in the waters, who wanted to swallow men… Thereupon your Only Begotten Son going into the waters, with his great power trampled him under his heels and destroyed the great beast.
But in case his listeners miss the point of his resurrection when it happens, Jesus looks forward, mentioning the coming resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Those who approached Jesus were looking for evidence, and so Jesus provides them with evidence that will condemn their generation (and all generations that follow), by comparing the Jews to two pagans from the Scriptures: 1) the people of Nineveh and 2) the Queen of the South.
The kind of evidence the Jews should have been seeking is that which the Ninevites provide. When Jonah preached, the Ninevites exercised faith and repentance and as a result, their lives were changed, they were saved (see Jonah 1:17, 3:5). Jesus then recalls how the Queen of Sheba traveled from a far place to seek the wisdom of King Solomon (see I Kings 10:1-10, II Chronicles 9:1-12), demonstrating that both the Ninevites and the Queen of the South responded to God’s invitation. The Jews heard the same message, they encountered God in the person of Jesus Christ, who is Wisdom embodied, and not only did they not amend their ways, they sought to kill him. If the Ninevites and the Queen of the South were an image of the Jews, both Jonah and Solomon are a type of Christ, as Prophet and King (of Peace), respectively (Solomon means Peace). Perhaps this further appealed to the knowledge of the scholars and Pharisees who approached Jesus, as well as provided them with more than enough evidence as to who they were questioning. St. John Chrysostom wonderfully expresses what the Jews should have heard Jesus saying:
The Ninevites indeed believed without a sign, but I have exhibited many signs. They heard nothing more than those words, but I have made it impossible to deny the truth…And of Jonah nothing had been prophesied in advance, but of me everything was foretold…And Jonah indeed, when he was to go forth, instead ran away that he might not be ridiculed. But I, knowing that I am both to be crucified and mocked, have come nonetheless. While Jonah did not endure so much as to be reproached for those who were saved, I underwent even death, and that the most shameful death.
What can we learn from the Ninevites, the Queen of the South, or even from the scholars and Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing? When we ought to be kneeling before God in gratitude, amazement, and admiration, do we build a case against the Church, insisting on the rules to the detriment of unity and peace, or do we repent at the preaching of the Gospel? As a parish community, as a culture, are we also an adulterous generation, one that is unfaithful to our Lord, always demanding a sign, seeking proof to validate our faith, or do we set out on the path to discovering the wisdom of God?
Let’s look at the example of the Ninevites, the Queen of the South, and even the Prophet Daniel’s companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whom the Armenian Church remembers this week. These three individuals didn’t look for God to prove himself in their time of despair. Their belief didn’t insist on God meeting them on their terms and what he could do for them. Instead, whether or not God would save them, they stood up for the faith simply because of who God is and willingly went into the fiery furnace rather than worship false gods:
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed′nego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnez′zar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
All of these examples demonstrate the kind of faithfulness God looks for in each of us, as well as a community. Together, let’s look to the ultimate sign, the resurrection of Christ, the life that Jesus shares with us in baptism and Holy Communion, the life without which we obsess and divide over evidence that never leads us to a true encounter with Jesus Christ.
Swept and Furnished
Fortunately, a far greater preacher than Jonah, and wisdom far greater than Solomon’s is available to us in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no need to seek further evidence, only to repent and live out who we are created to be, a people in communion with God. Jesus gives a warning to his listeners, the same warning for us today – anything less than faithfulness will result in our judgment, and it’s not enough that our house has already been swept clean.
We may think we have cleaned out the junk from our lives. We have been baptized; we are basically good, law-abiding people, right? But unless we furnish our lives with the divine life of Christ that he came to share with us, we are vulnerable to evil moving back in to occupy our hearts, and our last state will become worse than the first (see Psalm 106:34-39, II Peter 2:20). St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the Jewish generation that Jesus is addressing:
Since they did not believe in Christ but rejected the Savior, the impure spirit again attacked them. He found their heart empty and devoid of all fear of God, swept and took up his dwelling in them.
Like that generation, we also must guard our hearts which are sealed with the Holy Spirit at baptism, and where the Spirit of God dwells (Romans 8:11, I Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).
Through baptism, our house, or temple, has been cleansed, received into the Body of Christ, but even those who devoutly live out their baptism are not immune to sin or turning from the vows of their baptism. Daily, we should consider with what we furnish our temple, our heart. Is it with the sacraments and teachings of the Church, Scripture, works of mercy, and forgiveness? Or do we furnish it with distractions, various idols, false gods, addictions, busy-ness, or unforgiveness? Due to sinful habits and confused priorities, idols will make themselves at home to the point of not being noticed anymore, similar to becoming accustomed to a piece of furniture or decor in our home that just becomes part of the landscape, no longer noticeable as we walk past it every day.
Is our parish community neglectful, prey to a greater evil? Do we take the time and effort to closely examine our own space, the heart of our community in order to remove idols or anything that doesn’t belong? How do we keep our sacred space clean? By living as though God dwells within us. Which means getting baptized, where we ask the Holy Spirit to seal us and live within us, where we become a temple for God to dwell. But that is just the beginning of our faith journey. Living as though God dwells within us means obeying God’s law of love – which is not just being nice to one another. That’s not enough. Rather, love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength! Also, to love our neighbor, including our enemies! It means facing the pain and suffering of others with God’s mercy and healing. It means forgiving others, even when they don’t ask for it. It means sacrificial giving. It means evaluating what we allow to entertain our minds – visually, audibly – to identify with what we have become desensitized. It means living in a constant state of confession and repentance, like breathing, always aware of what is distracting us from God and what causes us to turn our back to him. And it means to meaningfully participate in Badarak by coming forward to share Holy Communion so that we are changed and transformed into the Body of Christ.
From the Epistle reading for the day, St. Paul reminds the Church at Rome (and also us) about the distinction between a life without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a life endowed with the Holy Spirit:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6)
What furniture needs to be purged from our global Church, our parish community, and in our personal lives? How should we live and pray to rearrange and furnish our temples in order to keep out evil influence and live not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit?