Look within before passing judgment

  • January 16, 2009
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 25 (Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20)

What if the people we criticize and despise were to change their ways? “Wonderful,” you say, but it isn’t always that simple. There is a rather distressing human need to have enemies and others to condemn and look down upon. The greatest hell for the moralist and reformer is to have no available targets.

So it was with our friend Jonah, here given in a very brief summary. He ran from God’s command to warn Nineveh of impending doom because he hated the Ninevites — as did most Israelites — for the Ninevites had given them ample reason to do so. They were the violent persecutors and conquerors of many nations in the eighth century BC.

After many misadventures, Jonah finally fulfils his mission and his worst fear materializes: The Ninevites are moved by his message and sincerely repent. God rescinds His sentence and they are spared — all is well — but not for Jonah. He sinks into a murderous and sullen rage because God has been compassionate and merciful. Jonah was ready for blood and thunder — he could hardly wait for God to vaporize his enemies. In a teasing but firm way, God has to remind Jonah — and maybe inform him for the first time — that the Ninevites are also human beings and just as precious to God as the Israelites.

The psychological insights of this story are right on target. Our motives for criticizing others, either individuals or groups, are never entirely pure. We might even enjoy the sense of moral and spiritual superiority it gives us. This is why both Testaments insist that we look within ourselves before we pass judgment on others. Any criticism levelled at the state of affairs or the actions of individuals must always be done with the deepest humility and a sense of one’s own complicity and inconsistencies.

At first glance, Paul’s advice seems to be a recipe for an apathetic and joyless sort of existence. Don’t enjoy anything — don’t really take part in things — live a life devoid of passion and commitment. But taken in its context his advice makes perfect sense. It is written in the expectation of an immediate end — or radical transformation — of the world as we know it. The world’s structures, institutions and forms are rapidly passing away. Don’t cling, Paul insists, live and walk lightly. The things that we take for granted are not bad, but the ground can suddenly shift and give way beneath our feet. This is a path that is helpful in our own very uncertain and unstable world. Many things can and will change or pass away, but God and love will not.

This same sort of urgency is present in Mark’s version of the call of the apostles. In any other setting it would be irresponsible to walk away from one’s job and family obligations in order to follow an apparent itinerant preacher and holy man. But it is not a time like any other — it is the critical moment in the divine timetable for God’s intervention in human history. When Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God has come near, He means that huge changes are in order. The distorted and unkind world of human beings must give way to a world renewed by God’s love and justice. This is indeed the “good news.” We might wonder where the good news went. The world seems to plow ahead in its usual fashion and there doesn’t appear to be anything new under the sun. But appearances are deceptive: the Christ event was the “tipping point” in world history.

Much work still remains to be done, but it is indeed being accomplished by so many people, sometimes in spectacular ways but more often modest and quiet ones. There is still as much urgency in the proclamation now as when Jesus proclaimed it — perhaps even more so. There is so much at stake — we are at a very critical point in human history. The challenges are endless: political, economic, religious, environmental and moral/spiritual. The proclamation should challenge us to leave many things behind and focus our time and energy on the task of extending God’s reign in the world.