The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away. When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Jesus had mentioned “the sign of Jonah” before and had explained that just as Jonah was in a big fish, he will be in the earth for three days (Matthew 12:40). However the Gospel of Luke explains the sign as having to do with Jonah being sent to Nineveh and Jesus being sent to this generation (Luke 11:30). So is this “sign” about Jesus’ resurrection or our repentance? The book of Jonah is not about Jonah’s death and resurrection. The focus is on a prophet who knows scripture well, but fails to understand God’s will and rebels against God. God sent Jonah to call “those people” to repentance, and Jonah did not want to do it. Even in the end of the story, Jonah is sulking because “those people” responded favourably to God’s love and weren’t suffering. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” indeed (Jonah 2:9b).
So when Jesus speaks of “the sign of Jonah”, he may be referring to his own death and resurrection (as in Matthew 12), but he may also be talking about God blessing people whom we would actively seek to exclude from “our” churches and community spaces as in Luke 11. In Matthew 16:17, when Peter is called the “son of Jonah,” maybe we are given a little clue by Jesus as to what Peter’s ministry will be like? Peter – the one reluctant to accept Gentiles, but realises the Holy Spirit of God has different plans (Acts 10).
The teaching of the sign-seeking, religious authorities then is the unwillingness or inability to see God at work and to follow God’s lead. Even though they knew scripture, they struggled to see what God was doing through Jesus. Like Jonah, being able to quote scripture doesn’t matter, if one fails to listen and follow God. This “yeast” is what Jesus tells his disciples to avoid.
Prayer God, as we read your Word, help us to know Your heart better. Draw us closer to You and to Your priorities. Help us to live and serve together in the community that You are creating. Amen.
The Rev’d Angela Rigby, Minister serving Christ Church URC Tonbridge, St Johns Hill URC Sevenoaks, and Christ Church URC Sevenoaks