Readings challenge us to repent and discern God’s call

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Father John A. Kiley
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Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20

“This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” Jesus’ first spoken words in Mark both proclaim the long-awaited arrival of God’s kingdom and challenge all to repent and believe in this joyous good news. As we struggle to discern God’s demanding call, each of us can pray in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Teach me your ways, O Lord” (Ps 25).

To understand the startling message of the first reading from Jonah, we must know something about this peculiar biblical book. It is a didactic short story (only four chapters), written as a challenge to the stereotypes of the Israelite prophetic tradition on the basis of God’s merciful action even to the hated foreign enemy. Usually a prophet, however reluctantly, responds to God’s call, but invariably the chosen peoples of Israel and Judah refuse to listen to the prophet’s message. But in the story of Jonah this situation is reversed. When called to preach against the wicked and hated Assyrian city of Nineveh, Jonah flees by ship in the opposite direction. Only after being cast into the sea and spending three days in the belly of a great fish, does he reluctantly perform his task. In contrast to the reluctant prophet, the pagan Ninevites surprisingly respond to Jonah’s preaching with belief and immediate repentance, something both Israel and Judah repeatedly fail to do. Although it took three days to go through Nineveh, after a single day of Jonah’s preaching the whole city repents in sackcloth and ashes, and God relents in the punishment he threatened against it.

In the section following our reading, Jonah is angry with the Lord for showing mercy to the hated enemy city. He leaves Nineveh and waits to see what will happen to it. God challenges Jonah’s blind hatred through the lesson of a gourd plant which he gives as shade to the prophet for only a single day. When the plant dies, Jonah is angry and asks for death himself. But God reminds him:

“Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention many cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Upon first hearing, the second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians seems out of step with a Christian commitment to responsible living in this world. Filled with expectation of Jesus’ triumphant return, Paul seems to advocate ignoring our normal human obligations. Although Paul’s rhetoric may jar our more practical sensibilities, he is emphasizing the radical demands of Christian living, which must never completely identify worldly projects with God’s kingdom. Paul lived with an apocalyptic sense of urgency. Jesus, the Messiah, had come and triumphed over sin and death through his cross and resurrection. God’s renewal of the world has begun, and Christ will return in triumph to complete the new creation. Christians, living in the interim before Christ’s triumphant return, should live for the renewed kingdom of God, rather than this passing sinful world:

“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.”

The Gospel selection from Mark contrasts the momentous arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ initial preaching with the rather humble beginnings of that kingdom in the call of four Galilean fishermen. Mark has prepared us for this critical moment by his previous narrative. John’s appearance in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy announcing the coming of God’s messenger (Mark 1:2-5). John then foretold the coming of a “mightier one,” and Jesus came to be baptized. At Jesus’ baptism the heavens were rent open and God’s Spirit descended upon him, as a heavenly voice spoke to him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:6-11). The Spirit then drove Jesus into the wilderness to battle Satan with prayer and fasting for 40 days and nights (1:12-13). Now, as Jesus begins his mission, he proclaims God’s good news: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We might well expect that the world is about to end. Instead, Mark follows this announcement with Jesus’ calling ordinary fishermen to accompany him on his mission of gathering people for the kingdom, like fisherman catching fish (see Jer 16:16).

This simple, straightforward story, however, presents the radical character of Christian discipleship. First of all, Jesus reverses the practices of discipleship in his day. Ordinarily, the would-be scholar, interested in studying the Law, chose a rabbi as his teacher. But here Jesus takes the initiative in choosing his own followers by authoritatively commanding these ordinary workmen: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Secondly, Jesus’ call demands a break from “business as usual” so that Simon and Andrew “immediately abandon their nets” and become Jesus’ followers. James and John also leave their father Zebedee and go off in Jesus’ company. The arrival of God’s Kingdom in Jesus ministry turns the world upside down and calls for a radical re-ordering of his followers’ lives.