The Sign of Jonah
29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, "This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom; and now one [h] greater than Solomon is here. 32 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now one greater than Jonah is here.
The Lamp of the Body
33 "None of you lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead you put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, [i] your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, [j] your body also is full of darkness. 35 See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. 36 Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you."
Imagine a scenario where a father walks into a messy playroom. His oldest child and their friend were playing in the room but failed to clean it up so he wants his child and their friend to take care of that situation. He doesn’t have the time to go upstairs where they are hanging out so he sends one of his younger children up to the room to tell them that Dad wants them to go back to the playroom and clean up. The guest immediately realizes their error and goes down to the playroom to begin cleaning up the mess that they made. After a while the Dad realizes that the guest has listened and sprung into action but his own child is still sitting upstairs and has disregarded the warning of the younger child. So, the father decides that he needs to go up and have a talk with this wayward child himself and give him an opportunity to obey. He goes up and personally asks the child to go down and clean up the room along with his friend who is down there already cleaning up. The father goes away to work on something else thinking that this will clear things up, yet when he returns a few minutes later, he finds that the guest is still downstairs cleaning and the son has done nothing. This is outrageous and unacceptable. The very behavior of the guest has made the disobedience of the son look even worse. There is simply no excuse. The guest sprung into action at the word of a small child but the father’s own son has rejected his own far more authoritative word. In this hypothetical situation, the heart of the son has been exposed not only by his own action but even more so by the action of the guest.
Luke is continuing to describe Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and his urgent mission to warn the Jewish people that the time is short. They must make the choice to either embrace or reject the Messiah. With each passing scene and moment, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that the leaders of the Jewish nation, representing the entity of the nation of Israel, are rejecting Jesus’ kingdom message. They were completely rejecting the notion that something was askew and needed to be put to rights. They are showing their true colors and their true humility before God, but there is something that is making matters even worse; the behavior of the guest. Israel was God’s son but was not obeying his call to come to the Messiah. When the guest behaves and the son doesn’t, it speaks volumes about the heart of the son, especially when the guest responded to one with far less authority than the father.
As the crowds increased, they asked more and more for a sign. This was no act of honestly seeking truth, however. They were not asking for a sign because they hadn’t been given opportunities for faith. They were more like children who are asked by their parents to clean their room but don’t want to so they claim later that they didn’t start cleaning because they weren’t sure that’s what the parents wanted. Everything Jesus had been doing and saying were signposts showing them the way to God’s will. He was simply not the kind of Messiah that they wanted which meant that if he really was the Messiah that God was not working in the way that they desired. But rather than humbly and radically changing their expectations, as the disciples were having to do, they simply rejected what Jesus was doing and demanded signs that more fit their perceptions of what he should be doing.
Jesus stated plainly that their continued request for signs were showing their true hearts. To fully understand this section it helps to understand that the basic understanding of the physiology of the body in the Greco-Roman world was that the eyes did not function by allowing light to come into the body, rather they allowed the body’s own light to go out from the body. Thus, whether one’s eyes were full of light or darkness had everything to do with what was already in their hearts. If they had wicked and dark hearts then their eyes would be full of darkness and spread it everywhere they went. If they had good hearts that were full of light then their eyes would be full of light and their actions would follow.
This is the line of thinking that runs behind this whole passage until Jesus says it outright in verses 34-36. They were a wicked generation because their hearts and eyes were wicked (Jesus used the same word, “poneros” for both the “wicked” generation and the “unhealthy” eye). The only sign, then, that they were going to get beyond what Jesus had already been doing was the sign of Jonah. There were likely two points of contact that Jesus intended by saying that they would be given the sign of Jonah. The first was that Jonah had preached to Ninevah about their wickedness and their need to repent prior to their judgment. So would Jesus proclaim the wickedness of the Jewish generation of his day and their need to repent prior to their impending judgment. The second was that just as Jonah, by spending three days in the belly of a great fish, had become a sign to the people of Ninevah for their dire need to repent and the overwhelming power of God, so would Jesus, by spending three days in the heart of the earth, become a sign to the people of this generation of their need to repent (cf. Matt. 12:38-42).
Jonah’s sign and his preaching caused the extremely wicked people of Ninevah to repent. In the same vein, the Queen of the South, the Queen of Sheba, came from far away to see if Solomon really was the agent of YHWH, Israel’s God. She had many reasons to doubt but instead she found that Solomon was indeed God’s agent and that she needed to recognize that. The one thing that the Queen and the people of Ninevah had in common, besides their recognition of their need to humble themselves before God, was that they were both foreign pagans. Just as Jesus had used examples of faithful pagan aliens in 4:24-27, he does so again here. The rightful son was ignoring the Father by rejecting the son. It would be those who were foreigners and aliens who would recognize the Father’s call to action just as Ninevah and the Queen of the South had.
They were testing Jesus as the Queen had come to test Solomon but were not recognizing his wisdom as she had recognized Solomon’s. They were listening to Jesus just as the people of Ninevah had listened to Jonah but were not repenting as the Ninevites had. Jesus had wisdom that far surpassed that of Solomon but they would not submit to it. Jesus was far greater than Jonah but they would not recognize him. On the day of resurrection and judgment both the Ninevites and the Queen would rise with Jesus and that very action would condemn the Jews who had turned his back on God’s promised family.
It would, of course, be ridiculous to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. That would make no sense. Yet, this is precisely what they were doing with the light of his teaching. Rather than putting it on a stand and realizing that through his teaching Israel would become the light of the world that it was always intended to be (Isa. 49:12), they were rejecting his kingdom message. This was about as wise as putting a lit lamp under a bowl. It was foolish, make no mistake.
But why would they be doing this? Why would they be shrinking back from the light? For the same reason that so many do in our own time. They had dark eyes. Their eyes, in fact, were simply letting out the darkness that was welling up within them. If they were full of light then their eyes would be healthy and light-filled but they were not. They were not only full of darkness and self-will but they were shrinking back from the true light, going farther and farther back into their caves. This is important because light was also a fundamental biblical image for one who had embraced God’s presence while darkness indicated one that was removed from God. They were rejecting God’s ways because their hearts were full of the darkness of their own will. One cannot embrace God’s will while clinging to their own will anymore than a room can be dark and full of light at the same time.
The die had not yet been cast, though. They could still choose to have the light shine on them and to well up from within them. They could turn from their wickedness as the people of Nineveh had and be forgiven. There was still a chance for repentance but they had to stop looking for the types of signs that they wanted and simply look for the light. They had to come to the realization that their true hearts were continually being broadcast through their outer actions.
This is a stern reminder for us that there is no such thing as the idea that our actions don’t really reflect what’s in our heart, despite how often we would like to tell ourselves that. What comes out through our eyes, our actions, does reflect the light, or the darkness that we have embraced in our inner self. Actions, then, cannot be dismissed as unfortunate but insignificant moments. What we do reflects who we are in our hearts. Who do your eyes says you really are?
Have you found yourself in a situation recently where your behavior was worse and less “godly” than some non-believers around you? How does that challenge you to make sure that you are always committed to doing the Father’s will in every situation? What can you do on a daily basis to ensure that the virtues the Father values will shine forth in your life at the right times?