Change our ways for the Lord’s coming

  • January 10, 2012

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 22 (Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20)

Jonah was definitely unhappy with his divine mission to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh. This was the capital of the Assyrians — a people regarded with fear and loathing by most of the people of the ancient Middle East. Known for their ruthlessness and cruelty, they had given the Israelites plenty of reason to hate them. The northern kingdom of Israel was totally annihilated at their hands in 722 BC.

Jonah fled as far away from Nineveh as he could when God commanded him to preach to that city — but God was relentless. After many adventures, he performed his task: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Much to his chagrin and anger, the Ninevites took his message to heart and sincerely repented thereby averting the disaster.

In the omitted portion of the story, God tried to cajole and tease Jonah out of his sulk, finally asking him a very pointed question: Do you think that I don’t care for the many souls in Nineveh?

The story would have been rather shocking to the original audience. Just imagine if a present-day prophet were asked to walk through an al-Qaeda camp with the same message. We can imagine that there would be many individuals who would be disappointed and angry if these adversaries actually had a change of heart and repented. Unfortunately human beings seem to need someone or some group to hate. Jonah is an ancient teaching story. The point of the story is that we should not demonize our “enemies” nor should we write them off. People are capable of change and the grace of God works in ways and in places that can shock and amaze us.

We should not presume that we are always on the side of the angels nor should we fall victim to the conceit that God is somehow our possession or always on our side. It sounds like a lesson we can dust off and apply to our situation today.

The appointed time has grown short — if one believes this as Paul did, then plans for the future are not very helpful. Paul insisted that the present form of the world was passing away. In its place God would create a radically transformed world of justice and righteousness. All human works and institutions were going to be swept aside.

Paul exhorted his followers not to cling to anything or identify with the usual things. Marriage, wealth and poverty, slavery and so many other things were destined to become non-issues very soon. The only important thing was to remain in Christ and to be faith-filled.

In our own time we do not expect such a sudden or dramatic change of the world. Our personal world can be disrupted or changed and communities experience upheavals and disasters. But transformation — that is something that we must work out on our own. Paul’s message still applies — do not cling, do not be possessive, do not worship the status quo and above all, remain faithful to God.

Paul was merely echoing the proclamation of Jesus: the time is here, God is going to set the world straight, change your minds and hearts and believe in this wonderful news as if your lives depended on it. The arrival of Jesus on the Earth clearly inaugurated a new chapter in human history. His encounter with the first disciples is telling.

The fishing metaphor that He uses is an end-time image. The nets and the catch of fish represented the ingathering of souls in the last days. Jesus clearly enlisted His followers to go out and haul in souls for God.

There was an intense urgency about this — the end-time had begun and there was no time to waste. The force of His personality and His proclamation were such that many were willing to drop everything — their very lives — in order to follow Him. 

Although we might not be living in the end times the message is still urgent: change the way you think, acknowledge the mastery of God over the world and every human life. Being a fisher of people for God is a wonderful calling. Unlike ordinary fishing it is always in season and none is ever thrown back.