Jan 25, 2015: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1st Reading – Jonah 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.

The book of Jonah is not regarded by most scholars as historical, but rather as a parable with elements of allegory; with the chief concern of the author being the teaching of a religious message.

Our reading for today occurs after Jonah’s famous encounter with the great fish.  God spares the people of Nineveh because they heed the message God sent through him.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah,

This is a technical phrase identifying Jonah as a prophet sent by God.

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.

The recipient of God’s word is usually Israel, but in this case, it is Nineveh, Israel’s mortal enemy.

Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria during the latter years of its glory.  Although many of the historical and geographical details about the city in the book of Jonah are inaccurate, the city was known throughout the ancient Near East as one of the most brutal of its day.  For this reason it became the symbol for wickedness in the ancient world.  It is to this despised city that the prophet is sent with a pronouncement of judgment and punishment.

Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it.

The uncommon size of Nineveh emphasizes the extent of its arrogance and wickedness and the scope of repentance that is needed if it is to be saved.

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,”

For unspecified reasons, Jonah does not go into the heart of the city.  He enters only partially and there proclaims the message he has received from God.

A period of forty days is given to the Ninevites so that the entire population can be warned of the impending punishment.  Forty represents a significant biblical period of time, often indicative of great change.  It is the length of the flood (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17) and of Moses’ conversation with God on the Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18, 34:28); it was the number of years the Israelites spent in the desert, it was the number of days it took Elijah to travel to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

Note the brevity of the message: no long judgment speeches or oracles of admonition, judgment and doom. The paucity of words in describing what happens adds to the speed of the story’s movement, underscoring Jonah’s desire to complete his task as soon as possible.

when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

In an unlikely turn of events, the city renowned for its wickedness repents as soon as it hears the proclamation of a prophet from one of the backwater nations it has oppressed.  The Hebrew expression employed here is the same as that used for Abraham’s belief in Genesis 15:6 where he was justified.

The comprehensiveness of the spirit of repentance is remarkable: all people in this enormous city, both great and small, put on the garments of penance.

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.

The people of Nineveh turn from the evil they are doing, and so God turns from the evil that threatens them.  The sudden conversion of this contemptible city speaks loudly of the graciousness of God and the transformative power of God’s word.  Even the worst sinners can repent and be made new.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this story is God’s concern with the salvation of a nation other than Israel; in fact, for a nation that has been brutal toward the chosen people.  This demonstrates the universality of divine compassion and willingness to forgive.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 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.

In today’s reading, Paul warns the Corinthians that they must act differently because the world in its present form is passing away.

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.

Paul is teaching about the end-time.  Unlike what we regularly think of as the unfolding of time (chrónos), this is a different notion of time (kairós), a time of greatest theological significance.  It refers to decisive moments, those that are ordained by God, those that mark the inbreaking of God’s action.  It is frequently the time of fulfillment, of divine intervention.

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.

Paul is suggesting that kairós is fast approaching but has not yet arrived.  However, he advises Christians to live as though it had already come.

Because in many ways kairós is “time out of time,” it calls for a manner of living and acting that in ordinary circumstances might appear eccentric.  It is not that the customary demands of life are to be scorned; this unusual manner of living is a way of responding to the singular character of kairós.

The exclusively male reference to act as not having wives may reflect an earlier belief that the man was the active partner in procreation.  The men are exhorted to refrain from sexual activity, not unlike the restraint imposed upon them during military service.  Kairós time is similar to a period of military activity, when customary living must be set aside for another pressing responsibility.

Weeping and rejoicing are normal reactions to the events of life.  Because the values and aspirations of the age to come differ from those of this age, our reactions will be different as well.  What ordinarily makes us cry may not elicit the same response in the kairós future; what normally brings us pleasure may cease to have the same effect.

The insecurity of material possessions will become so evident that we will recognize the futility of acquiring more.  We will indeed deal with this world as though not dealing with it.

For the world in its present form is passing away.

Paul’s basic message is that Christians must remained detached from this world — time is running out and the world as they know it is passing away.  He wants them to be ready for Christ’s return.

“Note that Paul says that the form of this world is passing away, not the substance of it. Therefore if the form of the world is going to perish, there is no doubt that everything in the world will vanish. It will all pass away. Every day the world gets older.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Gospel – Mark 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.

As with last week, today we again hear an account of Jesus gathering followers, when he calls the fishermen, Simon and Andrew, James and John, to be his disciples.

Today we begin a continuous reading of Mark’s Gospel that will carry us through this segment of the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Remember that in Cycle B of the Lectionary, most of the Gospel readings are taken from the Gospel according to Mark.

After John had been arrested,

The verb translated here as “arrested” could also be translated as “handed over.” The same verb is used by Mark to refer to Jesus’ passion and death, which lends this passage a bit of foreshadowing.

Mention of John’s arrest may have also been the author’s way of alerting the reader to the danger that accompanied the kind of prophetic behavior and teachings that John, and later Jesus, undertook.

Jesus came to Galilee

John preached in the wilderness of Judea, which is also where he baptized Jesus.  Jesus left the wilderness and came to the villages and towns of Galilee.

proclaiming the gospel of God:

Jesus’ choice of Galilee for his ministry may have been more conventional than John’s (the wilderness), but his message was startling.

“This is the time of fulfillment.

Kairós, the time of fulfillment of all expectations.

The kingdom of God is at hand. 

The phrase “kingdom of God” is rich in theological meaning.  In the earliest traditions it was identified with the people of Israel, and it had very definite political meaning.  However, even during the time of Israel’s monarchy, God was considered the real ruler of the people; the monarch was the one who administered in the place of God.  The failure of the monarchy prompted the people to look to the future, to a time when another king, one who was totally faithful to God, would establish a kingdom that would truly be the kingdom of God.

This would be a time when all would be steadfast in their commitment to God.  Down through the ages, the prophets looked forward to this future time.  They encouraged the people to turn away from their lives of sin and to dedicate themselves anew to the reign of God.

Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

After his initial announcement, Jesus calls for repentance.  Just like the prophets of old, he calls for a metanoia: a change of heart, a return to God.

Interestingly, he also calls for belief in the truth of the proclamation that the kingdom of God is indeed at hand: believe in the gospel.

“One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance.” (St. Jerome, Commentary on the Gospels).

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen.

The announcement of the good news is followed by an account of the call of the fishermen Simon, Andrew, James, and John.  Fishing was a major industry on the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Playing with the image of casting nets, Jesus summons them to follow him, to cast their nets and gather up other followers.  Unlike the disciples of other famous rabbis and Greek teachers, these followers are called to work with Jesus, not merely to learn from him.

From a worldly perspective, Jesus has chosen the most unlikely candidates to be his disciples. These men have absolutely no experience, are unsophisticated and, presumably are pretty rough around the edges given the strenuous nature of their trade.

Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.

The abruptness with which these men leave their familiar lives and livelihoods is an indication of the radical nature of life in the kingdom of God.  Their response requires no contemplation or study, they immediately obey.

“It has been demonstrated to us in Scripture that any too dear relations, crafts and trades are to be quite left behind for the Lord’s sake.” [Tertullian (A.D. 211), On Idolatry 12]

He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.

The addition of these two will complete what will become Jesus’ inner circle: Peter, James and John. These are the ones who will later witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter and Jesus’ transfiguration.

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.

While this reading says nothing about the family responsibilities of Simon and Andrew, it does indicate that James and John have family ties.  In a patriarchal society, the abandoning of one’s father violated a fundamental kinship relationship.  Yet James and John did exactly that, with the same immediacy as Andrew and Peter.

Mark’s primary purpose is to show that discipleship entails renunciation of the security of possessions and family ties.

“For James and John, called by the Lord, immediately leave quite behind both father and ship. Matthew is roused from the toll-booth. Even burying a father was too tardy a business for faith! None of those whom the Lord chose to Him said, ‘I have no means to live.’” [Tertullian (A.D. 211), On Idolatry 12]

“There must have been something divinely compelling in the face of the Savior. Otherwise they would not have acted so irrationally as to follow a man whom they had never seen before. Does one leave a father and follow a man in whom he sees nothing more than he sees in his father? They left their father of the flesh to follow the Father of the spirit. They did not leave a father; they found a Father. What is the point of this digression? To show that there was something divine in the Savior’s very countenance that men, seeing, could not resist.” [Saint Jerome (ca. A.D. 400), Homily 83].

Connections and Themes

This particular period of Ordinary Time is really an interlude between seasons.  Christmas is behind us, and in a few weeks we will be entering the season of Lent.  During this time, the readings invite us to reflect on various aspects of discipleship.  Having considered the call to discipleship last week, today we reflect on the first and most important responsibility of this call, namely, evangelization.

Evangelization. God seems to choose the most unlikely people to preach to others.  Apparently it does not matter who brings the good news, but who receives it.  Jonah was a prophet who was sent to outsiders, people who were considered enemies of God’s own people.  The first disciples were fishermen who spoke to the women and men of their own country.  God’s salvation is intended for all, and it seems to make little difference who brings this good news.

There is some similarity in the messages; it is a call for repentance.  The grace of God requires a new way of living, a turning to God in faith and commitment.  In addition, the good news proclaimed first by Jesus and then by his disciples announces the advent of the reign of God.  Those who hear this message are invited into the age of fulfillment.  This salvific reign is a reign of truth, compassion, and kindness.  It is a way of life that leads to justice, that teaches the ways of a humble God.  It is a way of life lived in the holiness of the call itself.  Repentance is necessary because we have not been living this way.

Urgency in acceptance. There is an urgency in these readings.  Unless we embrace the gospel now and live it fully, we may run out of time.  The world in its present form is passing away, and God’s call demands a total response.  Like the disciples, we must leave our nets, the familiarity of our former ways of living, and follow the call we have heard in the depth of our hearts.  We may be called from a life we enjoyed, as the Corinthians were, or we may be called like Jonah to a life from which we try to escape.  In either case, God’s call to discipleship is persistent, even unrelenting.  As demanding as it may seem, we should be grateful that God does not give up.

As disciples we are called not only to enter the reign of God but to promote it and to spread it.  We are ambassadors of God; we bring the good news of salvation, and we do this wherever we are and in whatever we do.  Having been called by God, we now begin to live our lives in a totally different way, guided by the values of the reign of God rather than those of the world that is passing away.

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