Friday, January 20, 2012

Leaving Behind the Nets: The Readings for the 3d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Responding immediately to the Word of God is the theme for this Sunday's Readings.

The First Reading is from the Book of Jonah, one of the twelve “minor prophets” of the Old Testament. Jonah is best remembered for his colorful experience with a great “whale” or sea creature, but the “whale” experience is not actually the theological heart of the book, which is focused on the nature of prophecy and God’s saving love for all humanity, not just Israel.

In this Sunday’s selection, we hear the account of Jonah’s preaching to Ninevah. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the “evil empire” of Jonah’s day. “Ninevah” evoked the sentiments that “Moscow” prompts among those of my generation, who grew up during the height of the Cold War. Ninevah was everything evil: capital of a pagan empire that imposed its will on vassal peoples with military cruelty. Ninevah would, in fact, ultimately be responsible for the destruction and deportation of the northern ten tribes of Israel. This is why Jonah ran away in the first place—to avoid God’s call to preach to this wicked city:

Reading 1: Jon 3:1-5, 10
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
"Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you."
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD'S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day's walk announcing,
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, "
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
After his experience in the belly of the fish, Jonah is now reluctantly obedient. He walks into the city and begins his “evanglization”: “Forty days more and Ninevah will be destroyed!” His message is humorous in its brevity—notice that he offers no hope for the people, no inducement to repentance, no pleading to turn to God! In fact, we can be sure he is hoping the people will not repent, in order that God’s judgment will be realized.

Seldom has such an apathetic attempt at “evangelizing” had such dramatic results. The city repents, from the common people to the king himself, and fast as a sign of their repentance. In light of their contrition, God does not fulfill his dire warning through Jonah.

The Book of Jonah is making several theological points: first, God’s message of judgment is implicitly conditional. Even when no possibility of salvation is explicitly stated, there remains a possibility of mercy for the repentant. This is an important hermeneutical principle that helps explain other OT prophecies of judgment that, like the word against Ninevah, were not realized.

Secondly, the Book of Jonah shows that immediate and heart-felt repentance can come from persons and places that we might never expect by human judgment. We can’t “write off” either individuals or nations.

The responsorial psalm is a prayer that God “teach us his ways.” In context, “his ways” refers to God’s mercy: that he does not always punish as people deserve, that he is not a God of strict vengeance, that he does not fulfill our desires to “get even” with those who have wronged us. Instead, he is a God who “shows sinners the way":
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
R. (4a) Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your love are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice
and teaches the humble his way.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Lest we grow complacent or presumptuous on God’s kindness and mercy, St. Paul warns us that the time is short.  The opportunity for repentance does come to an end with this present life:
Reading 2: 1 Cor 7:29-31
I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away.
This is the principle of "detachment": all Christians are called to live in this world, but not of this world. While marriage, children, possessions, etc. are inevitable for most Christians in this life, still we need to learn the art of living in this present world with our eyes on the next. St. Paul’s words are closely related to Our Lord’s admonition: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt 6:19-21).

The disciples in today’s Gospel provide a radical example of detachment. Hearing the call of Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth who proclaimed himself greater than Jonah (Luke 11:32), the disciples respond with the same promptness as the Ninevites, leaving behind the commitments to family and possessions St. Paul mentioned:
Gospel: Mk 1:14-20
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea;
they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them,
"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."
Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther
and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They too were in a boat mending their nets.
Then he called them.
So they left their father Zebedee in the boat
along with the hired men and followed him.
Mark’s Gospel is the most abbreviated of the Four. A close reading of all the Gospels makes it clear that this encounter was not the first contact the disciples had had with Jesus. They were familiar with his teaching from previous occasions—he was not a stranger whom they beheld for the first time on this particular morning in Galilee. Nonetheless, this fact does not detract in the least from the radical nature of their commitment to follow.

We should point out that, for the majority of the disciples, the call to follow Jesus meant, de facto, a commitment to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience until their deaths. According to tradition, all were martyred save John, who died in Ephesus in his old age. The full embrace of the radical apostolic response to the call of Christ is still present in the modern Church, in the religious life.

But the call of Jesus to follow in discipleship is not restricted to monks and nuns. In some ways, however, to follow Jesus in the religious life, by taking the habit and making a clean break with family, marriage, and possessions, is an “easier” way to follow Jesus’ call—but only in the sense that the boundaries and expectations are clearer. Figuring out how to live “in” the world but not “of” the world when you have a house, two cars, several children, and multiple social roles in the community is a much more complicated matter. St. Josemaria Escriva is one saint in particular who devoted a lot of thought and prayer to the complicated issue of how the Christian life should be lived by the lay person, which is one of the reasons I appreciate his spirituality. In fact, his best known collection of sermons was called “Christ is Passing By”—referring directly to today’s Gospel reading, in which Christ “passes by” issuing the call to follow him. St. Josemaria’s idea is that often, in daily life, we encounter situations in which “Christ passes by”, that is, we have the opportunity to follow him or reject him, and we have to make a decision then and there, in real time, in the heat of the moment. The art of the Christian life is to train ourselves to recognize the call of Christ and follow quickly when the opportunity arises.

How does the lay person do this? There is not space to develop a whole theology of discipleship for the lay person, but some basic principles would include: (1) daily practice of personal prayer, (2) making habitual small acts of self-denial (mortifications), (3) owning nothing superfluous, and avoiding expenditures for whim, caprice, or self-comfort, (4) accepting disappointments and failures with cheerfulness and courage, as tests of faith.

The goal is, by small acts of obedience, always to be ready to respond to the call of Christ, even if it should come to us in a moment of crisis, which might demand us to abandon our “nets” and begin a new life.

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