From Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began saying, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!"
Some people who have little or no knowledge of Jesus seem to behave with more gentleness, honesty and generosity than many of us who call ourselves Christians. Today's Gospel hints at this paradox. Although Jesus was comparing the Gentiles to his Jewish compatriots, the story was written for Christians to learn from. The Queen of the South represents Africa, or Ethiopia in particular. That distant, exotic land was unreachable to Israelites who feared the open sea and only rarely resorted to ships, such as in Solomon's time (1 Kings 9:26-29) and under Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:49). Africa came to visit Solomon in the person of the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10:1-13). Similarly, the Ninevites, the feared and hated Assyrians who caused such devastation to neighbouring countries, could be converted by the preaching of Jonah. With very little religious background, pagans could come to faith. By contrast, those who see and hear what "kings and prophets desired to see" (Matthew 13:17), may accomplish so little!
Each of us, St Paul seems to say, contains in ourselves not one but two life-principles. We are born of the flesh in the natural order, and born of the spirit in the supernatural order. The first follows a law that is irreversible, conception, birth, life in the flesh. Paul compares this to Judaism with its multiple laws for each moment of human existence. Our second birth through the Spirit far surpasses our fleshly human ability and potency, and it leads to eternal life. Flesh is doomed to die; spirit is promised eternal life. The spirit co-exists with our human, fleshly self and liberates us from its slavery to death.
This double birth is modelled in Jesus, according to Paul's opening words to the Romans. Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh but was made Son of God in power, by his resurrection from the dead. Salvation comes through the Spirit, not only in Jesus' case but always. The Spirit is somehow present in everyone in the world. We too have the benefit of the Scriptures, the sacred liturgy and a long tradition of saints. All of us can remember wonderful moments in our own lives when the Holy Spirit brought us the fruits of love, joy and peace. We are able to anticipate eternal life and its joy here on earth, for the Spirit of Jesus, greater than Solomon or Jonah, dwells within the fleshly temple of our bodies.
Jesus notes the failure of people to appreciate him or to recognize him as someone greater than Jonah, greater even than Solomon. If the people of Nineveh trusted the word of Jonah and if the Queen of the South showed such trust in Solomon, how much more should Jesus' contemporaries respond to him. The same Jesus who was present to his contemporaries is present to us as risen Lord. We too can fail to appreciate the Lord who lives invisibly among us.
Perhaps, like Jesus' contemporaries, we look for signs without recognizing the powerful signs of his presence that are all around us. The greatest sign of the Lord's presence, a sacred sign or sacrament, is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist the Lord is present to us under the form of bread and wine, saying to us, "This is my body; This is my blood." In coming to Him in the Eucharist we are coming to someone greater than Jonah or Solomon. He is present to us in other ways also. We take his presence seriously by responding to his call and following in his way, as the people of Nineveh responded to Jonah's call. Having been graced by the Lord's presence, we should respond by living in a graced way.