Perhaps the clearest message that we should welcome from our readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is that God and His plan of salvation for all should be our life’s top priority. However, the didactic story of the prophet Jonah proves that it is not easy for us to be so free and so detached from whatever and whomever we hold on to in order to be docile and valuable participants in God’s salvific plan.
As the tale goes, the Ninevites were Israel’s archenemies. Thus, unsurprisingly, in prophet Jonah’s mind they deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth rather than be given a chance to repent. Jonah was so biased against the Ninevites that, not only he disobeyed God’s order to preach repentance to them, but, foolishly, he set sail in the opposite direction of the pagan city of Nineveh.
Cast overboard in a storm, he was swallowed by a large fish and, three days later, spewed out on the shore near Nineveh. Then, as noted in the Book of Jonah (3:1-5, 10), convinced that he was wasting his time, Jonah went through the motion of preaching to the Ninevites. Shockingly, after only day one of his preaching, they repented of their sinful ways and God decided to spare them. Yet Jonah was so sure that, eventually, God would have destroyed the city that he built himself a shelter of broad leaves on a hill overlooking the city so that he could have the best spot from which to enjoy the spectacle of the imminent destruction of the hated city. At the end of the Jonah’s story, God tries to reason with His prejudiced and rebellious prophet so that he would embrace God’s boundless mercy and forgiveness extended also to one’s enemies.
This timeless story challenges us too. Do we truly, viscerally, believe that God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness should be applied to anyone who repents? In my 49 years of ministerial priesthood, I have found a number of people who cannot wholeheartedly accept God’s grace meant to reach anyone with a contrite heart. Confident in their good deeds, accomplishments and the correctness of their tightly-held ideas, they overlook that, etymologically, the word grace indicates that it cannot be merited; it cannot be deserved, but that it is given gratis.
They might have a hard time with an open-arm Crucifix. According to their view of God, Jesus on the cross should have saved only them and a precious few others who share their elitist views. Whenever confronted, they would deny holding such ideas. Yet, their behavior and their dealing with God betray precisely an attitude in all similar to the one of Jonah. They cannot take the risk of needing an all-compassionate, all embracing, all-forgiving God to deal graciously with them, too. They feel safe only in multiplying their prayers and in doing lots of good things for God so as to claim the right to His favors and mercy.
Mark’s concise description of the calling of the first disciples (Mark 1:14-20) displays instead the right disposition to have in order to become, first, humble recipients and, then, effective messengers of God’s mercy.
As he (Jesus) passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen.
Two questions should surface quickly in our minds: 1) What did the Lord see in Simon Peter and Andrew and, later on, in James and John that he did not see in all the many others who were milling around the lakeshore or were in their boats; and that God the Father had not seen in the prophet Jonah?
The second question concerns us even more personally: 2) Do we own up to our sins with such a humble and contrite heart that we do not look down on any other sinner; rely on the Lord’s mercy; and respond most generously to his love with our imperfect, yet utterly sincere love?
Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Simon Peter and Andrew, then, James and John became effective messengers of God’s mercy because, in earnest, they heeded Jesus’ call to repentance due to the proximity of God’s Kingdom and because they were willing to be detached from all their meager possessions to become fishers of men.
To make God and His Kingdom the top priority of our life we should always keep in the back of our mind the most vivid cases of our sinfulness, not to be embarrassed or to brood over them but, as St. Paul did, to motivate ourselves to respond with the most confident and the most generous display of love we can muster. And, secondly, to place the Lord and His Kingdom way above whatever and whomever clutters our heart and occupies our mind.
For Simon Peter and Andrew, for James and John, what they held dear were some boats and fishing nets needed for their livelihood. For Jonah it was all to which he stubbornly clang, including his religious prejudices, his disdain for the Ninevites, a pronounced sense of superiority, and his self-righteousness.
What keeps us occupied and fills our hearts, besides, obviously, material possessions, could be strongly-held ideas, pet peeves, calculations designed to get us the desired results, carefully concealed hubris, deep-seated fears, the urge to get even with someone, prudence tainted by avoidance of possible embarrassment, even people whom we might dehumanize somewhat because we want to manipulate and use them for our selfish reasons.
The detachment we need for God and His Kingdom, can take place only with the constant help of the Holy Spirit. But, as the old axiom goes, nature abhors void spaces. In our call to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to remember that it is not sufficient to free our minds and hearts of whatever and whomever is stifling our mission, we must feel the need to fill the void of our heart with the Lord and His Kingdom of love and mercy for all.