Commentary on Matthew 12:38-42
Today’s passage follows two others, which we have not read. In the first Jesus is accused of doing what he does by the power of Satan. An accusation which he easily shows is self-contradictory and makes no sense. In the second he says that a tree that is rotten inside cannot produce good fruit. Goodness comes from a person’s interior. The words are directed at his accusers whom he more than once accuses of being hypocrites: pious and law-abiding on the outside and full of malice inside.
It is these same people who approach him today. It is difficult to know their mood as they ask Jesus for a sign. Is it a genuine request for Jesus to indicate the source of his authority and power or is it a hostile demand for Jesus to present his credentials?
In response, Jesus first says that “it is an evil and unfaithful (literally, ‘adulterous’) generation that asks for a sign”. Yes, evil and unfaithful, because for anyone with an open mind, Jesus has been giving nothing but signs ever since he began his public life. The ordinary people have been full of praise and amazement at what Jesus is doing and say that “God has visited his people”. But these leaders, blinded by their own prejudice, are even saying that the teaching, exorcisms and healings of Jesus are the work of Satan.
In addition to all this they are going to get an unmistakable sign of who Jesus really is. They will be given the “sign of Jonah”. Just as Jonah spent three days buried in the belly of the sea monster so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. This is a clear reference to Jesus’ resurrection – the conclusive sign of his identity and power.
Mention of Jonah leads Jesus to say that the people of Niniveh who repented after hearing Jonah will fare better at the last judgment than the people that Jesus is speaking with. And Jesus is of far more significance than Jonah.
Similarly, the Queen of the South, that is, the Queen of Sheba, who came from a far distance to hear the wisdom of Solomon will fare better than the unbelieving listeners to Jesus, who is greater by far than Solomon.
We, too, have the privilege of listening to Jesus and we know the sign of his resurrection. Is it not possible that there are many people around us who, not knowing Jesus but following the guidance of their consciences, will find themselves going before us into the Kingdom? Complacency is probably one of our biggest temptations. “I am good enough; I observe the basic requirements of my religion.” Is that all that Jesus expects of me?