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An Evil Generation

by Fr. Peregrine Fletcher, O.Praem.

 
“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.”

When crowds gathered around Jesus during His ministry on earth, He often took the time to heal, pardon, and console them. Today, however, Jesus exclaims to the growing crowd that they are an “evil generation” heading for condemnation. This sounds harsh and difficult—and no doubt it is challenging; however, in reality, Jesus’ words to them here are more compassionate than we may realize. One reason why lies precisely with the men of Nineveh in the book of Jonah.

In the book of Jonah, God describes the men of Nineveh as evil and He wants them to know that He knows this. So, in the very first sentence of the book, the Lord commands Jonah to “go to Nineveh…and inform them that their wickedness has become known to Me.” Though He could, God does not want to destroy them for their wickedness, but desires to save them from it. Jonah, however, is not so generous and, in the very second sentence of the book, we’re told that he runs away until he ends up the belly of a great fish—a rather humiliating juncture (normally, men catch and eat fish, not the other way around!). Of course, this ultimately saves Jonah from the raging sea as the fish “vomited Jonah upon the dry land”—also rather humiliating—and so, only then, does Jonah set out finally to preach to the men of Nineveh.

And it’s this very preaching that Jesus brings up in the Gospel today, preaching that inspired these men to immediate repentance. But what kind of powerful preaching would be able to move an entire city to such conversion? One imagines that Jonah’s words must have been carefully crafted and proclaimed with great charisma; however, his sermon is recorded in the Scriptures and it’s just one sentence long: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That is the great sermon, that is the preaching that Jesus refers to; one simple, rather unimpressive sentence, given by a man who didn’t want to preach and tried getting out of it. With no rhetorical flair, no lengthy preparation beforehand, it’s this surprising sentence that God uses to move the hearts of the men of Nineveh to instantaneous, enthusiastic repentance.

And the humble submission of the men of Nineveh stands in stark contrast to Jonah’s own stubbornness. When Jonah realizes just how successful he was, the Scriptures say that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry.” The book ends with Jonah still struggling with God’s bestowal of mercy on his enemies, on such an evil generation, and as the book closes, we discover that the men of Nineveh are in a much better place with God than the prophet Jonah is. Poor Jonah seems to have missed that fact his journey to bring about the repentance of evildoers was simultaneously meant to bring about his own repentance as well.

While this account occurred centuries before the coming of Christ, the repentance of the men of Nineveh was so pleasing in the eyes of God that He’s still talking about it in the Gospels, as we heard today. With this in mind, consider again those whom Jesus calls an “evil generation.” They have something in common with the men of Nineveh. They were also an evil generation on the brink of condemnation, but after Jonah informs them of their wicked ways, they then have the blessed opportunity of repentance and, having done so, were saved. Likewise, Jesus, in informing His generation that they too are evil, and is similarly offering them the same opportunity to repent and disassociate themselves from the evil generation heading to condemnation.

Brothers and sisters, we live in an evil generation, but God wants us to want to save them from their sins, not destroy them, and the Lord often asks us to preach repentance to them by our way of life. Like Jonah, we may prefer that our enemies suffer God’s wrath, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that our own hearts still have much to repent of—remnants of the evil generation from which we’ve been called. Our mission of inspiring others to true conversion must always include our own conversion lest, by leading those of this evil generation to their own wholehearted repentance, we fail in bringing about our own.

When Jesus informed His generation that they were evil—and indeed when He shows us our own—He’s doing us a very painful favor. The Lord is ultimately being compassionate, giving us again and again the opportunity to repent. This isn’t always easy, but the story of Jonah and the men of Nineveh should give us great hope; and how much more hope we should take when we see the distances that God is willing to bridge in order to help up toward repentance. For truly, in just moments on this very altar, we will be able to proclaim from the depths of our heart that “there is something greater than Jonah here.”

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