16 October 2006

Semiotic illiteracy

28th Week OT(M): Galatians 4.22-24, 26-27, 31-5.1 and Luke 11.29-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

I was lost in Nice, France with my good friend, Patrick. We had decided to take a bus from Villefranche to Nice to visit the Chagall and Matisse museums. When it was time to head back to our ship, we took a bus to the Garibaldi station and waited for the transfer back to Villefranche. And we waited and we waited. Three or four buses stopped but none was ours. We asked a woman at the station how to get back to Villefranche. I should say, we mimed and shouted and grunted and wildly gestured b/c neither of us speak French. The poor woman energetically responded to our desperation with what I can only assume was beautiful French. Let’s just say, her gestures were impressive! She repeatedly pointed to the signs on the bus stop and the signs on the street corners and the signs on the many construction barriers along the road. No good. Patrick and I wandered the Garibaldi area of Nice for an hour or so—illiterate and lost. Finally, we found our bus and made it back to the ship. The moral of the story? All the signs in the world will do you no good if you can’t read them.

Why is Jesus being so mean about the reasonable request of the crowd for a sign of his identity and power? Why is he being so stubborn all of a sudden?

There are at least two ways of reading Jesus’ signs, that is, two ways of interpreting his miracles. First, they can be seen as magical events, mysterious tricks that tickle the imagination and satisfy some sort of basic human need for the mystical. Second, the miracles can be seen as helps, as divine assistance for and confirmation of our initial trust in Jesus’ word that he is who he says he is. Signs as magical tricks have to be repeated, done again and again, and rarely if ever do they establish anything resembling faith in the human heart. Signs as help for our trust in Jesus’ word require faith first. They cannot confirm in us what doesn’t exist in us. Looking out over the crowd, Jesus knows that those clamoring for a sign are really clamoring for a circus trick. They will not believe even if he stops the sun and calls angels by the thousands.

The only sign he will give them is his death, his three day stay in the grave, and his resurrection. The sign of Jonah. They will either read this sign as a trick or it will confirm their faith. If they fail to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they will be condemned by the queen of the south and the Ninevites at the judgment. She came looking for the wisdom of Solomon not knowing that the Messiah had come. How could she? No one believed, so no one witnessed. The Ninevites repented at the sign of Jonah. They believed and were confirmed in their faith. They will judge this evil generation for its stubbornness and willful ignorance. Christ risen from the tomb three days later is a greater sign than Jonah’s three day stay in the belly of the fish.

Do we clamor after signs? Look for indications that our faith in Christ is justified? Are we running after apparitions or miraculous events or private revelations to confirm what we already know to be true? Will we be like the Ninevites who hear the Word preached and repent? Or will we be like those of the evil generation and chase after signs to have confirmed what we do not believe in the first place?

We are set free in Christ. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. The greatest sign of Christ’s fidelity to us—greater than Jonah and Solomon—is the Christian living a holy life of sacrificial witness and service. This is a sign easily read and universally understood. No magic. No tricks. No stage. No drama. Just charity in action—the surest sign that Christ is among his people.


  1. Anonymous9:24 AM

    Very well said. Thanks Father!

  2. cheryl10:52 PM

    what are the chances that the fact that god gave us dominion over everything but has something to do with the sign of Jonah