… the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. …they turned from their evil ways…
We’ve heard countless times that our lives may be compared to a journey. We’ve set out on this journey with a lot of heavy baggage. It is a baggage that we ought to shed a bit at the time beginning with the baggage of our evil ways. This is the core of Prophet Jonah’s message. Other prophets conveyed the same idea, the same message to Israel, the chosen people, though mostly with less than positive results.
Against his will, Jonah is forced by God to invite those hated pagans (the Ninevites) to leave their evil ways behind and return to the Lord. Much to his chagrin, the Ninevites do heed his message and are spared.
This is also the core of John the Baptist’s message and, initially, also Jesus’: …”the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (cf. Mark 1:15)
Evidently, if God offers to our consideration this multi-faceted template of his Word, it means that all of us here present need to return to him. Some are urged to have a radical conversion, to make a clean cut with their evil ways, never to return to them. Actually, it is possible that this does not apply to regular worshippers because people who need this radical type of conversion attend church only very seldom.
I think that, here, God is addressing people who have grown accustomed to their less-than-apparent evil ways; have silenced their conscience about their habitual sins; resist parting with them, and have rationalized and diminished the seriousness of their condition.
This is happening even though the idols of their choosing or their brand of enslavement have yet to bring them any lasting happiness; and will never do so.
Let me give you some examples: cohabitation instead of being married to each other in church; addiction to pornography, obsessive self-abuse, prolonged unwillingness to forgive someone (a family member perhaps), alcoholism, spousal abuse, addiction to drugs, reckless gambling, exploiting others and the worst of them all: wasting time doing none of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.
We should remember that the sin of wasting time, of not seizing the opportunities coming out way to attend to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill and imprisoned amounts to failing to do so to Jesus himself (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). Our eternal destiny hangs in the balance!
If there is no will to improve and snap out of a sinful situation by using all the channels of grace that God provides, these become all serious, evil ways with which, alas, one can learn to live by rationalizing.
Yet, leaving these evil ways behind is but the vital first step of the journey. It is simply the shedding of the bad baggage that weighs us down. The leaving of good things behind must mark the rest of our life. This might sound strange but it is quite evident in the Gospel of Mark (1:14-20).
Look at Peter and Andrew, James and John: nets are good, necessary things for making a living, so are boats, buying and selling for the sake of one’s family members and so on. Yet, these are things and people that one ought to “leave behind.”
You might be more than a little puzzled by this request. Maybe the best way to try to shed light on such bewilderment is by looking at our call: we are to become fishers of men.
Translated in terms that we can understand it would mean this: Jesus wants us to lead, overtly, such a life that other people with whom we are associated or with whom we rub elbows may be impressed and be, they themselves, led to Christ.
Matthew 5:16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
By and large it is hard for us to carry out this task of being fishers of men because not only we tend to hold on to the “good things and good people” that make up our good baggage, but we strive night and day to add to it. Oftentimes this results in frustration, unhappiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction and might lead to cynicism. At the peak of one of these spouts of sadness we might say something like: “I need a drink; I need a vacation; I ought to get away from all this.”
The solution is a heavenly reward, grounded in inner peace, which is granted us gradually as we learn to trust more and more in the Father’s love for us. It is rooted in the belief that if the Father gave us his only Son on the cross, he will give us everything else that we need to live with genuine inner joy (cf. Romans 8:32).
Relying on this concept, we would use our “nets,” our “boats” to make a living, to provide for our loved ones, but without that compulsion to accumulate, to pile up because we would be keeping our eyes fixed on our heavenly Father. We would love and care for our family members, for all our loved ones, but without becoming worried sick. In true humility, we would acknowledge that what we can do for them is limited to loving and caring.
There are too many things that are beyond our efforts and, certainly, our control.
Now, we might think that, once we reach this stage, we would be baggage-free; but it is not so. The saints assure us that the hardest baggage to shed is, perhaps, the one of our way of praying, of worshipping God, of relating to him and of thinking of him. Eventually and hopefully, we will realize that our ways of praying, of worshipping, of thinking of God, of relating to him might be still too “man-made” and inadequate, if not wrong. That would be because, the closer we get to the Light that is God, the more we will find ourselves in darkness, blinded by his awesome, unbearable brightness. Thus, at any stage of our journey from shedding evil ways to shedding our earthly concept of God we need each other, especially each other’s prayers; we need to be docile to the Holy Spirit and we need the spiritual boldness to trust the Lord enough so that we may grow a little bit freer, every day. Thus, we would live with the constant awareness that our life is unfolding under the watchful eyes of our Father and secure in his most powerful yet gentle hands.
That would be the full realization of having repented and of truly believing in the Gospel.