THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Jonah 3: 1-5,10; I Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Today’s first reading contains one of the strangest and most bizarre stories in the entire Bible.
It’s the tale of Jonah and a whale. And I think it could be safely said that not until Moby Dick will we encounter a big fish story so riveting.
The narrative takes place when one of the most ancient and productive cultures of all time ruled supreme. They were called Assyrians. Some of our most fundamental and basic devices of daily life were invented by these people: the first paved roads, the first postal system, the first magnifying glasses, the first libraries, the first plumbing and flush toilets, the first aqueducts, and on and on.
Unfortunately, they were also one of the meanest, nastiest, brutish, violent and oppressive people in all of human history. And the people they picked on the most were the Israelites.
All of this is a little background to the much abbreviated reading we just heard about God calling out to an Israelite named Jonah. To expand the tale to its original length, God has a favor to ask of him: go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, and deliver a message of repentance and forgiveness.
But after receiving God’s call, Jonah thinks to himself: I’m supposed to go to that wicked city filled with those hated infidels who have made life a living hell for us? I – little ol’ me – am supposed to go to that city that has persecuted my people horribly and deliver a message of forgiveness and peace? Really?
Jonah wants nothing to do with this plan, so he heads to the nearest port, jumps on a ship, and sails … in the opposite direction! But the plot thickens. While on the boat, a terrible storm comes up. The all-pagan crew, after spending time in prayer over this, decides the cause of the storm is none other than Jonah. They quickly proceed to rid themselves of this evil spirit causing all the chaos by throwing him overboard. Then, as if life hadn’t become disastrous enough for Jonah, he’s swallowed by a whale.
Believe it or not, the story now gets even more outlandish. Inside this gigantic fish, Jonah gets on his knees and prays as fervently as he can, only to discover that the fish spits him out on dry land.
Jonah, now chastened by all of this, finally goes to Nineveh where he preaches a message of repentance. And, miracle of miracles, he discovers that the horrible, awful, terrible Assyrians are fantastically receptive to his message – so much so, that the entire city goes into a state of sackcloth and ashes.
A very strange story indeed!
Look at just some of the contradictions: The person who supposedly believes in God runs in the opposite direction – away from God. The person who is so proud of the superiority of his faith ends up on a boat full of pagans, who fall on their knees in prayer, while Jonah, the man of devotion, sleeps!
Then there’s the ultimate contradiction: Jonah becomes the one in the story who resists God at every turn; the Assyrians, those brutal, mean people so hated by the Israelites, are the ones who listen and accept God’s message. Even their king says: “Let man and beast be covered in sackcloth” – the ultimate symbol of repentance.
What’s the point to this spellbinding, but puzzling story? What are we supposed to take away from it?
Perhaps the point is this: Can you forgive your worst enemy? Can you be a channel through which God’s boundless love can flow even to those who have hurt you the most? Can you notice any of Jonah’s contradictions in your own life? Can you notice, for example, that we believers often find ourselves shamed by so-called “heathens” or “secularists” who too many times respond to the indignities of life around them with far greater graciousness and generosity and compassion?
Jonah received a “call” from God – and fled as fast as he could. The gospel of Mark today presents a different scenario: “Follow me” Jesus says. The response? “Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”
You and I are given a choice: Jonah’s response or the disciples’ response.
But, before you jump to opt for the latter, review carefully what Jesus is calling us to do. Because it’s possibly even more difficult than what Jonah had to endure!
Jesus’ call can best be summed up in one word: metanoia. It’s a Greek word that we usually translate as “repent,” as in “Repent, and believe the gospel.” But its meaning is far more profound. It’s the word that John the Baptist shouted out to the long line of sinners anxious to be baptized in the river Jordan. It’s the same word that Jesus passionately voiced to get the attention of anyone who would listen.
It’s a word that is best translated as “Change! Change your whole way of thinking and seeing and doing! Change and embrace an entirely different life path.” It’s another way of saying: “Things don’t have to stay the way they are now!” In fact, if you truly follow me, Jesus is telling us, things cannot stay the way they are.
Metanoia means that there are new changes to be made, new values to be embraced, new eyes with which to see. And we’re to do all of this by trusting in a future that is made possible by the grace of God breaking into human history in the person of Jesus.
Sadly, though, this is probably not what you and I want to hear. We like things the way they are. We want things to remain the same. We want to stay within our comfort zone. The idea of change scares us, threatens us. Just like it did Jonah. And so, like him, we are tempted to flee, or just ignore.
The problem is that if that’s our choice, you and I are going to miss out.
We’re going to miss out on the miracles. We’re going to miss out on what the disciples discovered when they did follow Jesus: the paralytic picking up his bed and walking, the leper whose life was no longer defined by his disease, the multitude being fed, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the sinful woman washing the feet of Jesus with her tears and drying them with her hair.
And there’s something else we’re going to miss out on. Something that is possibly the greatest miracle of all – the very same one Jonah witnessed with his own unbelieving eyes: the miracle of obtaining the power of being able at last to forgive, even our enemies.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.