Jonah, The Queen of Sheba, and Jesus
“Well, you should have known better!” Oh, how I hated hearing that from my mom. It was the tone in her voice as well as the words. You know the one. The tone communicated disappointment, disapproval, AND frustration all at the same time! Oh, I HATED it! But what made things worse was she was right! I SHOULD HAVE known better. I did know better, and yet, there I go again. Amazing. And here I was a “grown man” making the mistakes of a teenager! ARRGH!
There is all too often a disconnect between what I know and what I do. Despite having good examples AND bad examples in my past, I catch myself making the same mistakes over and over again despite the clear wisdom I know. Why? And I suspect you may know exactly what I’m talking about, and maybe you’ve had the same experiences in your life to one degree or the other. St. Paul knew what I meant. Listen to his cry of frustration in his letter to the Romans “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Romans 7:15)
The truth is this disconnect goes to the heart of the Orthodox understanding of our human need for salvation, our struggle to be truly free. We have a broken will. And that broken will keep us both aware of what we should be AND at the same time unable to become what we should be. What a horrible prison! The truth is most people “know” what they should do. Most people know what they shouldn’t do. And yet our weakened will hobble us from ever becoming what we know we should be. It is precisely this weakened will in humanity that makes us both our own worst enemy AND completely responsible for our actions. And the evil one uses this awareness of what we should do to drive us to despair and keep us enslaved to our passions. Or, worse yet, this reality drives us to excuse our passions and name them “good” thereby deepening our slavery to our passions. So, how do we escape this prison? How are we to be truly free?
Let’s look at our Gospel Lesson today in Luke 11:29-33:
At that time, when the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a bushel, but on a stand, that those who enter may see the light.”
Jesus is confronting an ever-growing crowd of people who are following Him, listening to Him, and being physically healed by Him. It looks like the Lord misunderstood good public relations because He confronts the growing crowds and His growing popularity with a bit of a downer opening line of His sermon: “This generation is an evil generation…” Well, at least He got their attention.
The Lord gives them two signs from the Hebrew Scriptures, stories they would know from childhood, told to keep them focused on God.
The first sign is a powerful picture of God using the “outsider” to call His people to true faithfulness. The Jewish people were blessed beyond measure by their unique relationship with the Creator and they squandered this gift. In doing so, their descent into evil and mere rule keeping tarnished their witness to the world. That’s why Jesus tells them that “the queen of the South” will judge that generation. This refers to the Queen of Sheba from 1 Kingdoms 10 where this stranger and Gentile queen sought God more than even those who had that special relationship with Him. Jesus tells them and us that just because you are born with a spiritual head start doesn’t guarantee you anything but the chance to treasure your spiritual advantage. If you take it for granted, the Lord will raise up even “outsiders” to embrace what you’ve let slip away through negligence.
The next sign is the story of the Prophet Jonah. Here, the Lord shows that the Good News is meant for the “outsiders” as well. Jonah is sent to the Gentile city of Nineveh to warn them of God’s impending wrath. They repented and God spared the city. But the story of Jonah also includes his being swallowed by a whale in the deep. Even the “outsiders” repented when told the truth, but Jonah learned the lesson of the power and love of God in being 3 days in the belly of the whale and brought back to declare God’s message.
The heroic lives of a brother and sister show us what the grace of God can do in our lives IF we are humble enough to embrace it. Sts. Zenobios and Zenobia were brother and sister living in Cilicia during g the reign of Diocletian and his persecution of the Christian Faith. St. Zenobios was a physician who healed those who came to him without expecting anything in return. He and his sister were examples of piety and faithfulness, and the people of the area eventually made Zenobios the bishop of the city. Lysias, the pagan governor of the area, had Zenobios and Zenobia arrested, tortured, and beheaded for their refusal to abandon the Faith.
Today, the path to true freedom runs through my willingness, to be honest, and grateful! I have to regularly confront, through the wisdom of prayer, fasting, and generosity, my need for repentance. I have to have the courage to go to confession regularly so that I never allow the delusion of my self-righteousness to enslave me to my passions. I MUST stop taking my faith for granted! Only by honest confession will I ever begin the journey to live a truly Normal Orthodox life.
P.S. With songs inspired by God, let us now render honor, as is due unto Zenobios and wise Zenobia, the pair of siblings in the flesh, who proclaimed true religion; those two martyrs of truth, who, passing their lives as one, also received together through martyrdom crowns that shall not fade.