God's Word on Sunday: God is about compassion, not vengeance

  • January 20, 2018

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 21 (Year B) Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

How do we react when the word of God is personally distasteful? We all say that we seek to do the will of God, but what if God demands something we are not prepared to give?

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, ordering him to prophecy to the great city of Nineveh. There was a problem. As far as Israelites were concerned, Nineveh was the heart of the Evil Empire.

It was the capital of the Assyrians, who had ravaged much of the ancient Near East for centuries. They had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and besieged Jerusalem on several occasions. Even in an age accustomed to violence and savagery, they had a well-deserved reputation for sadistic cruelty.

By the time Jonah was written, Assyria was only a bad memory — it had long since shared the fate of all empires. But Assyria was still a negative and powerful symbol of violence and evil, so Jonah wanted no part of this mission. He ran in the opposite direction, surviving a storm at sea and being swallowed by a giant fish.

Jonah finally relented and did what God asked, preaching doom and destruction throughout Nineveh. The unthinkable happened — the people listened!

The king ordered sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance for all the inhabitants of the city. God was impressed and relented — there would be no doom and destruction.

Rather than being pleased, Jonah sulked and pouted. When God tried to cajole and humour Jonah out of his funk, Jonah raged in protest. The reason he had run from God is that he knew that God was compassionate and merciful.

Jonah would have none of this compassion and mercy towards Israel’s hated enemies.

God’s final answer was that there were thousands of inhabitants of Nineveh deserving mercy and compassion as much as anyone else. Not what Jonah wanted to hear!

Jonah was like so many who are possessive of God and use God as a weapon against their enemies.

Despite many divine commands to the contrary, far too many are unwilling to extend compassion, forgiveness or kindness to those whom they despise. This is particularly acute in our own time when many view those of other religions, ethnicities or lifestyles with loathing and fear. God is not like us at all, and we can be grateful for that.

Paul believed that the world as he knew it would be swept away very soon. In advising people about states of marriage or slavery, his response was to stay as you are.

Soon none of those things were going to matter anymore.

He counselled living in a state of radical detachment from all institutions and social roles.

Two millennia have passed and we do not live in the same apocalyptic expectation. Unless we destroy ourselves — and that is indeed possible — the world will lumber onwards.

But there is still something to be said for being in the world, but lightly. We can avoid over-identification with all institutions, ideologies and social roles, remembering our true home and what is ultimately important.

Simon, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee probably lived in this manner. They were hard at work, earning a living, when they heard the opening proclamation of Jesus.

Without a second thought, they dropped everything and walked away from their livings and their former lives to follow Jesus.

They were sensitive and open to the word of God and lived in a state of expectancy. When Jesus offered to make them fishers of people, He did not have an idyllic fishing scene in mind. Fishing was a symbol often used in apocalyptic texts to describe the gathering together of humanity in the end times for judgment.

In Mark’s eyes, the end times had begun with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Those whom Jesus called were invited to take part in the grand drama that was unfolding — preparing humanity to meet God.

Our world is a scary and unstable place, truly the stuff of stress and nightmares. Perhaps we can walk lightly in the world, tacking our sails according to the Spirit, always ready to respond to God’s call.

We do not live in expectation of a violent or sudden end, so being “fishers of people” could well mean gathering people and bringing them home to God.

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