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The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah

The Only Sign Jesus Offers 

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Watch Richard Rohr speak about the prophet Jonah, Jesus, and the universal pattern of life through death.

Jesus said, “No sign will be given except the sign of Jonah.” —Matthew 12:39 

Father Richard considers what Jesus meant when he promised “the sign of Jonah”: 

This strong one-liner of Jesus feels rather amazing and largely unheard. He even says it is an “evil age” that wants anything other than the simple sign of the prophet Jonah. He says it is the “only sign” that he will give.  

This is indeed unsatisfying. For it is not a sign at all, but more an anti-sign. It demands that we release ourselves into the belly of darkness before we can know what is essential. It insists that the spiritual journey is more like giving up control than taking control. It might even be saying that others will often throw us overboard, and that we get to the right shore by God’s grace more than right action on our part. It is clearly a very disturbing and unsatisfying sign.  

Faith is precisely no-thing. It is nothing we can prove in order to be right, or use to get anywhere else. If we want something to believe in (which is where we all must start), we had best begin as Christians with clear ground, identity, and boundaries. But that is not yet faith! That is merely securing the foundations for our own personal diving board. 

Faith is the leap into the water, now with the lived experience that there is One who can and will catch us—and lead us where we need to go. Religion, in some sense, is a necessary first half of life phenomenon. Faith is much more possible in the second half of life, not necessarily chronologically but always spiritually. To paraphrase Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), “Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.” [1] Jonah knew what God was doing, and how God does it, and how right God is—only after emerging from the belly of the whale. Until he has first endured the journey, the darkness, the spitting up on the right shore—all in spite of his best efforts to avoid these very things—Jonah has no message whatsoever to give. Jonah is indeed a symbol of transformation. Jesus had found the Jonah story inspiring, no doubt, because it described almost perfectly what was happening to him. [2] 

Much of my earlier work with men and spirituality was teaching them how to trust their time in the belly of the whale, how to stay there without needing to fix, to control, or even to fully understand it, and to wait until God spit them up on a new shore. It is called “liminal space,” and I believe all in-depth transformation takes place inside of liminal space. To hope too quickly is to hope for the wrong thing. The belly of the whale is the great teaching space, and thus it is no surprise that Jesus said this was the only sign he was going to give (Luke 11:30). [3] 


[1] See Søren Kierkegaard, journal entry, 1843, in The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, ed. Alexander Dru (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 127. 

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), 31–32. 

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 85. 

Image Credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Jenna Keiper, Photo of a beloved artpiece belonging to Richard Rohr (Artist Unknown.) McEl Chevrier, Untitled. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

One of Richard Rohr’s favorite art pieces about the prophet Jonah and the whale. 

Story from Our Community:

For some years now, I have felt called to a nameless spiritual path free of the obligations of a prescriptive faith. As I write this, I am surrounded by the early spring flowers and birdsong, sitting under a sprawling beech tree. It is my favorite place to pray. The church bells are ringing in the village and I feel a part of it all. Even though people may see me as being a bit on the outside, I don’t feel alone. In fact, my faith has never felt deeper. I know I am also connected to a wonderful community of others through the CAC, the Daily Meditations and podcasts. I have found deep solace and support in my journey. I am so grateful—thank you. —Zarina N. 

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