JANUARY 21ST, 2018: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
"Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you."
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD'S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day's walk announcing,
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, "
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
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.
I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.
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.
After John had been
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."
As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea;
they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them,
"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."
Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther
and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They too were in a boat mending their nets.
Then he called them.
So they left their father Zebedee in the boat
along with the hired men and followed him.
We spend so much time arguing about whether a person can live in the belly of a whale for three days and three nights that we actually forget why the author of Jonah originally wrote his well-known book. Scholars for a long time have concluded these small three chapters aren’t to be taken literally. People read and saved them not because of their biological marvels, but because of their theological message. I often tell my students since the demise of Monty Python the only group who can do justice to Jonah is the Saturday Night Live crew. Yet even though the writer chose to convey his theology through classic sarcasm, his message is one of the most biting in all of Scripture.
It, like today’s other two readings, revolves around conversion. How does one get from point A to point B, not geographically but psychologically? Our sacred authors presume only those who continually move from one point to another have true biblical faith. The rest are just treading water.
Biblical faith is constantly moving; it never stops growing and evolving. Unlike the catechism faith many of us grew up with, it isn’t a static experience; a specific amount of dogmas and teachings we’re to memorize and eventually “believe in.” The only movement I can remember back then consisted in each catechism we studied containing more pages than the prior one. My faith grew because my catechism grew. Yet no matter how much I studied, it didn’t lead to conversion. Though I knew more, I still stayed in the same basic place.
In many ways we’re looking in a mirror when we hear about Jonah. Everyone in the book goes through a change – the sailors, Ninevites, animals, even Yahweh – except Jonah. He insists on maintaining the same frame of mind until the non-bitter end. Jonah’s author directs his book to the “unchangeable believers” among us.
It’s important to note that Yahweh doesn’t send the prophet to these notorious Ninevite sinners with a message of repentance. On the contrary, it’s a message of doom: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” But after Jonah proclaims it, the unexpected happens. Not only do they repent, their sudden turnabout forces Yahweh to repent.
Of course Yahweh’s behavior creates huge problems for us “Greek-thinking” people. How can God go back on God’s word and still be God? The great Hans Walter Wolff once answered that question with one of the deepest biblical insights I’ve ever encountered: “God doesn’t have to be faithful to God’s word,” the famous Scripture scholar said, “as long as God’s faithful to God’s people.” In other words, when God’s people repent, God repents.
The gospel Jesus learned that lesson well. He makes constant conversion a condition for carrying on his ministry. This itinerant preacher’s basic “stump speech” is simple: To experience the “kingdom of God” – God working effectively in one’s life – one must “repent,” pull off a 180-degree switch in her or his value system. What once was on the outskirts of one’s dos and don’ts is now front and center, and vice versa. He’s a demanding leader. Those who can’t (or won’t) change day by day can’t experience God day by day.
That change is certainly behind Jesus’ promise to his first four followers, “I will make you fishers of people.” He’s giving them a brand new focus in their lives, opening a door they never knew existed.
Probably few of us will experience the five-fold turnabout Paul speaks of in today’s I Corinthians passage. To say the least, that’s a little drastic. But the possibility is there for everyone. Who knows what will happen when we agree to convert?
There’s no “off button” on that machine.