The Sign of Jonah and the Witness of Friends Today

Few people in any religious community will deny that our times require clear-eyed, honest diagnosis informed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit—this was a keynote already in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, in which "discerning the signs of the times" was his image for noting both positive and negative developments in the modern world, things that testify to progress (like the improved situation of women) and raise alarms for the future (the arms race). To undertake to do that diagnosis is to see myriad causes in which we may feel engaged to struggle, to stave off environmental disaster, or rampant militarism, or racism in its many forms, or (still!) the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Friends and others not uncommonly speak of the need for prophetic witness. A Google search on the term will bring up interesting writings from across the religious landscape. For example, a widely read Quaker blog provides a valuable meditation on one Friend’s understanding: "So what do I mean by prophetic? I think prophetic has elements of clear-seeing and clear-listening and elements of God’s Truth-telling. What do I mean by witness? My six-year-old asked me that question last week. I said it’s ‘the things we do that show what we believe.’" ( The comments to this blog post respond to the writer’s further meditations with thoughts about tax resistance, following leadings, and listening to the Inward Christ. Other items returned by the search come from Catholic, Lutheran, and many other communities. And of course there are many Friends and others who are enacting some prophetic witness. Yet beyond specific actions, which are unlikely to become universal or normative among us, in the way (for example) plain speech once was, what more can we proclaim? The so-far fruitless search for a common, shared witness within my own yearly meeting makes me wonder if we are looking for the wrong answer for the times.

I have been meditating on a time when Jesus was pressed for a prophetic sign, a confirmation by outward deed that his commission to teach and preach was of divine origin. Responsible representatives of his community listen to his teaching, but have reservations, even though the Gospel accounts give reason to believe that many of them felt some sympathy towards him (or at least, like Gamaliel in Acts, were willing to wait for evidence of God’s hand in the Christian event). But, in their discernment, they seek something beyond authoritative teaching. Interestingly, we have two versions in Matthew. In the first instance, Jesus has been responding to accusations that he’s really an agent of Beelzebub, and finishes his remarks by saying that you must judge a tree by its fruit. It is entirely natural for some in the audience to say, "Okay, what can you show us?" (or maybe, "What have you done for us lately?" since, just a little while before, he has cured a man’s withered hand).

Jesus replies:

A wicked and adulterous generation is looking for a sign, and none will be given to it, unless it is the sign of Jonah the prophet. For just as "Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights," so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the Earth for three days and three nights. The Ninevites will rise up to judge the present generation, and condemn it, for they repented because of Jonah’s message, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matt. 12:38-41)

The same challenge—and a similar response—occurs later in Matthew, again just after Jesus has performed a wonder, the feeding of the 4,000. Again he is challenged to show:

. . . a sign from heaven. But in answer he said, "In the evening you say, ‘Good weather’s coming, the sky is red’; and in the morning early, ‘Today there’ll be a storm, the red sky threatens.’ You know how to read the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but none can be given it except the sign of Jonah." And leaving them he departed. (Matt. 16:1-4)

Naturally, from early in the history of the Christian movement, the "sign of Jonah" was taken as a metaphor or prefiguring of Jesus’ three days in the tomb, and resurrection. Presumably, the witness here is the power of God at work, to a generation that is both wicked and "adulterous," which can be taken as a synonym for "idolatrous": the prophets often compare Israelites who worship or condone idols to adulterers, or disloyal lovers. Thus, the only thing that might move the wicked, and those who worship Mammon or other gods than God, would be some astounding demonstration of God’s active intervention. This, then, would be the sign that undeniably will validate Jesus’ mission.

The demonstrative power of newness of life after a sacrificial death has been preached and practiced by Christians of all kinds since Paul spoke of dying to self and living with Christ, "yet not I, but Christ in me." Early Quaker leader James Nayler, in Love to the Lost, writes of the necessity of this "first resurrection," from spiritual death, as a precursor to any second resurrection after physical death: "in the light wait . . . that out of darkness thou may be led, to obtain the new birth and first resurrection . . . so thou shalt see the resurrection, the form and power and purity thereof." Without this rebirth and a life consistent with it, he says, the second resurrection is "to eternal destruction. Hearken all you busy minds, whose ear is open to mischief."

Yet these are times of doubt and confusion among the people of God as among all others—except for those who are most at ease with the way the world is, protected by privilege, or unseeing of the injustices, corrosive commercialism, militarism, and destructiveness of our societies to body, soul, and Earth. Friends are deeply implicated in the spirit of the age, and our worship and our strength is troubled by diversity and dissension within, as well as the wearing away of optimism in the face of developments in the world that seem beyond what humans can repair, though we have had the power to set them in motion. The tension and anxiety that come from a draining away of hope is seen not only in the intensity of our inward conflicts, but also in the urgency with which we seek to speak out against the evils we detest.

I do not know how to remedy the lack of corporate action among Friends, if it needs remedy. I do not believe that it is our special task to repair the wounds of the world, though it is our task to bear them, bear with them, and respond actively as led. We cannot succumb to the pride that assumes the world is waiting for our authoritative pronouncements, and that we can understand the global system in a way that points infallibly to the correct solutions. But going back to Jonah, I dimly see a witness that we can make as a people, in Jonah’s response in his time of extremity.

There he is at the bottom of the sea, in the belly of the whale.

As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"
(Jonah 2:7-9)

Jonah had run away from God, and from the knowledge of a prophetic task on behalf of a wicked people, but he remembered, when nothing else was left, his first love, and offered from the depths a sacrifice of thanks. Any sequel was God’s problem, and in God’s hand. What could deliverance possibly look like? Jonah could not tell; his witness was just his psalm. In the event, there came a new lease on life—and another lesson to learn: Jonah did what he was bidden, finally, with no satisfaction at the result, no reward except the experience of God at work in a complicated world, continuing the work of creation and reconciliation.

It may be that our calling as a people is to be intentional about descending into the depths as we encounter them, and then waiting there for the power to call out in thanksgiving and in a hope that lives without any illusion of control. If Friends as a people could testify from our very despair and confusion, to our faithfulness to the Spirit from which we learn love, whose sweet sacrifice and celebration is the grace of a thankful heart, then indeed we can speak both power and love to an idolatrous generation. Our commitment to waiting for and dwelling doggedly in that spirit of joy can be the root of our prophetic witness and our work on behalf of our sisters and brothers, the sign of Jonah for our time.
New Testament citations are translated by the author; other biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version. The citations from James Nayler are from Love to the Lost, in Works, vol. 3, published in 2007 by Quaker Heritage Press.