by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: “Time’s up! The kingdom of God is at hand. Change your life and believe the good news.”
Mark 1, 14-20
This first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, from which today’s gospel-reading comes, opens up with a sense of urgency and intensity. It seems as though the writer wants to stress that the arrival of Jesus on the scene heralds a critical time in the history of humanity. In Greek, there are two words for time. – chronos and kairos. The former refers to chronological and sequential time, to time as a measure of change. The latter refers to time as an opportune or critical moment for action. In today’s gospel reading, Mark attributes to Jesus the word kairos, because he was appealing to his audience to adopt a change of mind and heart immediately, to drop everything in order to embrace God’s way of doing things. The immediacy of the response of Simon, Andrew, James and John to Jesus’ invitation to join him is the kind of response that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth is required from everyone courageous enough to call themselves disciples.
Every now and then, when the circumstances of our lives become stressful, we can hear ourselves and others asking: “Where is God now?” We’ve heard that in reference to Covid. When everything around and within us is going well, we seem to be comfortable with a God who is tucked away in a far-distant heaven. If we were to take seriously Mark’s announcement that God’s in-breaking presence is imminent and that we have no time to dawdle, then we might feel pressured and, even, threatened. If we were to consider seriously Mark’s news that, in the person of Jesus, God has been let loose, and is alive and active in our world, then it might dawn on us that we are not in control. Moreover, it could just happen that God could ask us to drop everything at short notice and get involved in doing risky things in support of our needy sisters and brothers living in places that look dangerous.
Accordingly, complementing today’s gospel-reading is a very strategically placed reading from Jonah. Every single one of us knows something about the story of Jonah and his adventure in the belly of the whale. In fact, the modern-day equivalent of Jonah would be any one of the Three Stooges. The four-page short story of Jonah doing his bumbling best to run away from God is the Bible’s closest thing to slapstick drama. But, while we can so easily laugh and joke about Jonah’s futile efforts to avoid God, we can momentarily forget that he is reflecting to us our own unconscious efforts to keep God at a comfortable distance.
Once again, contextualising this delightful story offers us a richer, even if uncomfortable, appreciation of its significance. In his introduction to the Book of Jonah, Eugene Peterson writes:
“Stories are the most prominent biblical way of helping us to see ourselves in “the God story”, which always gets around to the story of God making and saving us. Stories, in contrast to abstract statements of truth, tease us unto becoming participants in what is being said. We find ourselves involved in the action. We may start out as spectators or critics, but if the story is good (and the biblical stories are very good!), we find ourselves no longer just listening to but inhabiting the story” (Eugene Peterson, The Bible in Contemporary Language, Alive Communications, Colorado Springs, USA, 2003, p. 1352).
The broader context of this biblical story is that Jonah had predicted severe, economic decline in the nation of Assyria – a decline that would weaken, temporarily, its military might, much to the relief of neighbouring countries. Several decades later, we are told of God’s sending a reluctant messenger to convince the population of Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, to save themselves from self-destruction. To an Israelite, the very thought of their God having any compassion for even one Assyrian was totally out of the question. Israelites would have seen Assyria as an incarnation of mercilessness. They could not comprehend the possibility of their God’s reaching out in love to the people of Nineveh. Jonah stood in solidarity with every Israelite. That explains his objecting to be involved as a messenger and an instrument of God’s mercy. Instead of heading for Nineveh, he high-tailed it in the very opposite direction.
While it is likely that the writer of the Book of Jonah would have been familiar with Isaiah (written as many as 150 years before Jonah) and have known well the words attributed to God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55, 8-9), Jonah’s behaviour and attitudes are entirely consistent with his character. He is not a mouthpiece for theological ideas. He clearly heard God’s call, but even more clearly knew that he just wouldn’t and couldn’t follow it. That wasn’t because he had responsibilities he could not set aside. He deliberately went in the opposite direction because he could not come to terms with what God wanted. He saw the Ninevites wallowing in immorality, and was totally convinced that they deserved the fire and brimstone treatment. And don’t we know people who strongly adhere to the view that God should visit bad things on bad people and good things on good people? Sometimes we might catch ourselves thinking that way, too. But let’s not forget that Jonah belonged to a culture in which everyone had the same world-view as he did – all Ninevites were tarred with the same brush, and deserved whatever retribution that could possibly be visited on them. The only one who could think of extending mercy to them was God. So, Jonah did all he could to avoid getting involved. When God finally cornered him and sent him off on a mission that succeeded, he responded with a childish tantrum and slipped into self-pity.
So, today’s readings present us with a stark contrast between Jonah’s response to God’s call and that of Jesus’ first disciples. Did Simon, Andrew, James and John just drop all their family and work responsibilities on the spot and go with Jesus? Probably not! Mark uses hyperbole to stress the impact made on them by Jesus’ message and his magnetic personality. In Jesus, God was on a mission to reclaim the world as God’s own. Those first four disciples made a commitment to join Jesus in God’s mission. Jonah, too, was invited by God to embark on a mission to reclaim the Ninevites for God. He just couldn’t commit himself to get involved. Despite his resistance, God’s mercy eventually prevailed. Today’s readings hold the mirror up to us. Do we see in our reflection someone whose commitment is closer to that of those first four disciples or to that of Jonah? Deep-down, we know that we have committed ourselves to following Jesus. But when we commit to following him, we are asked to let go of some of our strongest attachments. – our understanding of our world, our political allegiances, maybe, even, our views of right and wrong, the assumptions we make about those we think deserve God’s rewards and punishments. Those first disciples also had to let go much more than their nets. We all have “Jonah moments” and we all have “first disciple moments”. We dare to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”. Are we prepared to act in accord with the words we pray? God makes a gracious claim on our lives, and that claim defines us and gives us purpose.