First Wednesday of Lent

February 21, 2018 / By: John W. Martens

Jonah 3:1-10;Psalm 51: 1-4, 12-13, 18-19, Luke 11:29-32

The Prophet Jonah is sent to Nineveh, “an enormously large city,” to announce a message from God. It’s not a good message from a Ninevite perspective: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” But God’s proposed destruction of Nineveh is not a promise as much as it is a warning, namely, that if the people do not repent and turn from their sins, God will act in justice to punish them. The great Jewish medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that God’s punishment is always grounded in the behavior of human beings and repentance can bring the threat of punishment to an end.

The Ninevites heard Jonah’s call because they “believed God” and responded within a day by holding a fast and wearing sackcloth, signs of repentance. The king himself, repenting, said “Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath.” In fact, “when God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” The message was transformed by their humble response to God’s call.

Jesus brings an updated version of the story and message of Jonah to his own generation and people, saying that “just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jesus places his message, though, in the context of the final judgment, stating that “at the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.” But just as God’s judgment of Nineveh - “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” – resulted in the repentance of the Ninevites, so, too, we have time to hear Jesus’ message and to repent. Will we listen to the one greater than Jonah? If we do, we will renew ourselves, these forty days of Lent, and every day, to name our sins, turn from our sins, and call out to God for the mercy God wishes to lavish upon us. In 1 Timothy 2:4, we read that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” The message of judgment can be transformed by our humble response to God’s call.

John W. Martens
Professor, Theology