JANUARY 22, 2012: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
I Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

It's clear from today's I Corinthians passage that, in many ways, early Christians felt they were called to turn the world upside-down. Paul couldn't express their conviction better. "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 Apostle could easily have added, "And we Christians are the ones speeding up its passing."

We can find at least one clue to why followers of Jesus were responsible for the demise of the world as they knew it in the call narrative which comprises our gospel pericope.

Our seminary spiritual directors usually told us to hear this passage as Jesus calling his first four priests. The fishermen's response to Jesus' call should be our response to our call to priesthood. Our primary priestly work was to catch people and eventually lead them triumphantly into heaven.

There's one problem with such an interpretation. Scripture scholars constantly remind us, the biblical Jesus called no one to be a priest, as we know priesthood today. Mark's Jesus is calling his first four Christians, not his first four priests. It's a call on which any follower of Jesus can and must reflect. All of us have received it.

The evangelist certainly zeroes in on the immediate and total response of the four. "Then they abandoned their nets and followed him . . . They left their Father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him." No one said, "Check back with me next week; I'm a little busy right now." Nor did they agree to follow him part-time, returning to their boats regularly to still help their father and friends. Separation from their former life was instant and complete.

But two other aspects in the passage also stand out. First, in a world-altering way, people, not fish, were now to be at the center of their lives. "I will make you fishers of people." Neither their jobs nor family attachments, were to stand in their way of properly relating with other human beings. Second, they leave the security of those jobs and family attachments for the sake of a person - not for an ideal picture of a better world or a new system of action - but for a real live person. They simply "... followed him." They couldn't be certain where he was leading them; that would only become clear through time.

The author of Jonah emphatically agrees with that last aspect of Mark's call theology. His runaway prophet has a real problem following Yahweh as a person. Of course, like most biblical writings, only by reading the book's three short chapters do we understand the author's message.

Almost every living being in the book eventually repents: the storm-tossed sailors, the residents of Nineveh and their animals - even Yahweh! The book's only unrepentant individual is Jonah. The prophet's furious because Yahweh doesn't carry through on his promise to destroy the city and its inhabitants. He's still angry when the book ends. Jonah reminds God that he was sent to preach destruction, not repentance, and defends his bolting to Tarsish by saying he suspected Yahweh would end up changing his mind. He refused to prophesy for such a "repentable" person. Jonah fronted for a concept of God, not the person of God.

My former teacher, the great Hans Walter Wolff - the world's expert on Jonah - once explained Yahweh's repentance by stating, "God doesn't have to be faithful to God's word, as long as God is faithful to God's people." One of the most important things I've learned in all my years of studying Scripture.

Both in Jesus and Yahweh, we're called to follow a person who puts people at the center of their existence. Those who have enough courage to imitate such a person will certainly turn the world upside-down.