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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

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Nothing can be more disturbing to a prophet than discovering that, after he or she has delivered God’s word, God decides to change that word.

JANUARY 25, 2014: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings:

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

Biblical calls always revolve around following a person, not dogmas or rules and regulations, not even a set plan of action. That creates problems for a lot of people.

It certainly creates a huge problem for Jonah.

Many commentators completely overlook the message Yahweh gives Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites in today’s first reading. They refer to it as an oracle of “repentance.” Listen carefully to the prophet’s words: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” It’s a prophecy of doom, not repentance. Yahweh’s not calling on these Assyrians to repent; he’s simply warning them not to buy any long term life insurance. In a little over a month they’re going to be wiped out.

But then, to everyone’s surprise – especially Jonah’s – the unpredictable happens: the whole city, from the king to the animals, repents. Then something even more unpredictable happens: Yahweh repents! “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.”

Nothing can be more disturbing to a prophet than discovering that, after he or she has delivered God’s word, God decides to change that word. Jonah is ticked; reminding Yahweh that he ran away to Tarshish in the first place because he couldn’t depend on Yahweh following through on any prophecy he gave him to deliver.

Jonah – and the people for whom this book was originally written – has an image of God in the back of their minds, an image which they expect God to live up to. The author of Jonah wants us to examine our consciences. When we claim to be followers of God, are we following a picture of God we’ve conjured up in our minds, or the actual person?

It’s clear from today’s Marcan pericope that we Christians are also expected to follow a real person: the risen Jesus. Jesus’ invitation to his first four gospel followers is quite simple. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” There are no limits to the call, no specifics, except for making people more important than the four’s present occupation. They’re to begin their discipleship by adopting the value system of the one who calls them. People are now to be at the center of their lives. They, like anyone called to be another Christ, respond totally and immediately, even putting their family ties on a back burner. 

As Paul realizes, more than ten years before the first gospel is written, those who follow Jesus live lives frequently at odds to others around them. “Let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing . . . . For the world in its present form is passing away.” Everything changes when we change the way we relate to others. It’s the only way to create a new world.

Going back to our Jonah passage, how does one explain Yahweh changing Yahweh’s mind. The world’s expert on the book of Jonah, Hans Walter Wolff, had a simple, but powerful explanation. “Yahweh doesn’t have to be faithful to Yahweh’s word” the late Scripture scholar taught, “as long as Yahweh is faithful to Yahweh’s people.”
 
Real people are always subject to change, especially when people around them change. Who among us hasn’t changed our word about something when circumstances or people changed in ways which made our word counterproductive, when our word actually caused an effect at odds with that which we originally intended?

No wonder we’re tempted to create an unchangeable image of the God we follow. If God doesn’t change then neither do we have to change.

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