Franciscan Spirit Blog

Lent with Richard Rohr: ‘No Sign Will Be Given Except the Sign of Jonah’

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent | Readings: Jonah 3:1-10, Luke 11:29-32


Considering how Catholics love apparitions and miracles, how Protestants have made faith into a technique and formula, and how Evangelicals love a “totem and taboo” use of Scripture, 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 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. And this is all we are going to get?

You see, faith is precisely no-thing. It is nothing you can prove to be right, or use to get anywhere else. If you want something to believe in  (which is where we all must start!), you had best be a totem and taboo Christian, with clear ground, identity, and boundaries. But that is not yet faith! That is merely securing the foundations for your personal diving board.

Faith is the leap into the water, now with the lived experience that there is One who can and will catch you—and lead you where you 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. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wisely said, “Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.” 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. He has no message whatsoever to give 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 indeed is our Judeo-Christian symbol of transformation. Jesus had found the Jonah story inspiring, no doubt, because it described almost perfectly what was happening to him!


“The word of God came to Jonah: ‘Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.’” —Jonah 3:1  

“This is an evil age. It seeks a sign. But no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”—Luke 11:29


“God of surprising journeys, help me to live my life forward, trusting that you are steering the ship. Help me to understand my life backward by seeing and forgiving the many ‘signs of Jonah.’”

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