“This generation is an evil generation: it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
The “sign of Jonah” Jesus refers to is that when Jonah preached repentance to Nineveh, it repented and was spared. The generation Jesus was preaching to ignored him. Unlike the people who responded to the Queen of the South and to Jonah, his audience refused the heed the warning that judgment was coming.
In his historical context, Jesus came to Jerusalem and wept because the city and its leaders had failed to know the hour of their visitation. Complicit with evil and deaf to warnings, Jerusalem was on a path to destruction that the Gospel writers later interpreted as the catastrophe of the Jewish-Roman war in 70 Ad, when the city and temple were leveled, over a million people died and a great diaspora of both Jews and Christians into the Mediterranean world took place.
In more theological terms, the theme of repentance, individually or collectively, became part of the challenge of faith. A teacher once remarked that individuals are held accountable in eternity, but because nations only exist in history, their misdeeds are punished in this world. History shows that the abuse of power by leaders and nations eventually fails and that retribution follows.
As much as we want to believe in the goodness of our societies, even good people learn to live with inequity and injustice because they benefit from it. The thought that we may face judgment is seen as the end of the world. In fact, it may be the end of one world, and the beginning of other possible worlds that rise from the rubble of unjust systems. The sign of Jonah is a call to reform while it is still possible. Even an evil generation can change if enough people have the courage to protect the human dignity of all and affirm the simple truth that the common good is the only way any community has ever survived and flourished.