Reflection on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jonah 3, 1 Cor. 7, Mark 1:14-20
Today’s readings can remind us of how deep — and mysteriously various — are the religious bonds that connect us across the years and through diverse cultures. The readings are connected at the roots: They cover time from eight centuries before Christ up to the era of Christian beginnings, and still each story can succeed in touching our hearts, reminding us of the gift that three distinctly different ancient readings can speak to our hearts and to our human condition across these many centuries.
We begin with the story of Jonah. He was a sailor, and you will know him from the story of his three-day-and-night ride inside a “big fish.” There was a big storm, and he jumped out of the boat because, as he told his chums, he felt like he was responsible for that storm. BUT, lucky duck, he was swallowed by a huge fish (we named it a whale), which eventually spewed him back up to finish the voyage and brought him into his God-designated mission. His next “calling” brings him to the “huge” city of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk through it; it’s “a great city of more than 120 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.” Jonah’s mission is to turn that sinful city to the calling of God, with the threat that if they don’t do it in three days the the whole city will be destroyed. And Jonah did it. He went around and advertised to all the people the threat God had placed on them. And the people fasted and put on sackcloth as God had directed. “And God repented of the evil he was going to do.” You know the story, and you can enjoy the humor of the storyteller.
But what I want to look at today, is the “GOD,” the image of God as the writer presents God — a God who assigns a very large fish to swallow Jonah up and to spew him back when he’s finished. It’s a God who threatens to destroy the city of Nineveh if they do not do penance: “No human being or animal shall eat or drink water; they shall don sackcloth and cry mightily to God.” And when God sees their remorse, he changes his mind, and turns from his fierce anger, so that the people might not perish. This is a wonderful story, simply and beautifully told. But notice that God himself speaks of himself as “doing evil,” that he is communicating in what would be, we suppose the simple language of the people. You might notice the humanness of God.
The Jonah story goes back eight centuries, and it is understood in that context. But the next two readings skip over centuries, and we find the writing of Paul, so now we’re dealing with the era not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this part of the epistle, Paul is dealing with the situations of the people of Corinth, men and women trying to figure out what it means to live a “Christian” life — how to deal with sexuality, trying to imagine what positions a follower of Jesus might take when faced with complex male-female situations: for instance, how a male — married or not — should deal with virgins, and other situations. He says right off the bat that this isn’t Jesus’ teaching, it’s just his own thoughts, which might be a bit unclear. He’s trying to work out what is a sin and what is not a sin. What he really seems to want to do, he says, is just to eliminate things that the people (mainly men) would have to be dealing with, using their energy, getting involved and worried by. He knows he’s just trying to fit the teaching of Jesus into the present time, and his main concern, he says, is “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Might it be that at this time, when followers of Jesus were beginning to create a new “culture,” when some of the cultural rules of orthodox Judaism would begin to be questioned and Christianity was perhaps opening new freedoms, especially for women. Paul — and his cohorts — would have had to make their way — a new way — very carefully.
And then these writings move us straight into the story of Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew to leave their father and to follow him, beginning with this: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel. … I will make you fishers of men.” And the sons walk off following the word of Jesus, leaving their dad with only hired help, breaking their father’s heart. They walk off to follow Jesus.
That same sense of urgency … God’s threat that Nineveh would be destroyed unless the people put on sackcloth and believed in God. And Paul: “The world in its present form is passing away.” And Jesus: “The kingdom of God is ‘at hand’ …” and they leave their homes to follow Jesus.
So what can these stories mean for us centuries later? Note that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians ends with this: “The world in its present form is passing away.” And for us too, the present form of our world is always passing away: We face planetary coronavirus, climate change, nuclear militarism. Most of us are old enough to be aware of the huge changes in our culture just in our lifetimes. We need to note the difference and weigh what is genuine advancement for humankind and for all inhabitants of planet Earth. What is the real call of God, of Jesus?
We want to turn our hearts to the call of Jesus — HERE and NOW. Simon and Andrew — off they go. They are leaving the only future they know, breaking their father’s heart; they have absolutely no assurance about their future. They are trusting the simple call … “follow me.” And we? Truly we see: We are watching the present form passing, and we cannot know how or when or perhaps IF — a real deterrent will be discovered for the whole of the planet. Our call? To deepen our trust in the ever-present goodness of the Creator; to examine our hearts, to re-form our lifestyles and how we expend our energies.