A Reflection on the Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 21, 2024
The Book of Jonah was written tongue-in-cheek as the author intended there to be some humor in this book (see the introduction to the Book of Jonah in the New American Bible). Written in the post-exilic era (probably in the 5th century B.C.), this book, along with the humor, contains an important message for the nationalistic post-exilic Jews who could not conceive of God granting mercy to the Gentiles, particularly to the Assyrians of the city of Nineveh, as Assyria was the arch enemy of Israel. The Book of Jonah is a parable of mercy, showing that God’s mercy extends to all people; God’s mercy is not restricted to the “Chosen People” alone.
Part of the humor is found in Jonah, the most unlikely of prophets. He was an unlikely prophet because he was purely and simply a bigot. Jonah hated the Gentiles (particularly the Assyrians). When God called him to preach to the Gentiles in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, to convert them from their evil ways that God may grant them forgiveness, Jonah rebelled and essentially said: I will not do it! He wanted no part in saving the Gentiles. We are all probably familiar with the story, but here is some more humor.
Jonah decided to run away and hide from God rather than carry out his assignment (good luck; how do you do that?). A great storm engulfed the ship he booked passage on, and when the other sailors found out that he was running from God and, therefore, must be the cause of the storm, they tossed him overboard. Then he was swallowed by the great fish and spent three days in the belly of the fish (sort of like Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth in the tomb after his Crucifixion). Then, when he was miraculously saved from the belly of the fish, Jonah got the message. He better do what God commanded unless he wanted a repeat of the fish story. Off he went to Nineveh and, much to his chagrin, he was successful in his preaching, and the Ninevites repented. But Jonah was mad at God for saving the Ninevites, so he ran into the desert to escape from God again.
OK, so much for the story; you can read the rest of it yourselves, but what about the message? In this story, Jonah stands for the narrow, nationalistic view of many of the post-exilic Jews. They believed they were the Chosen People of God, and salvation belonged to them alone, not to the Gentiles! But God’s mercy is for all people, whether we like them or not. Can we apply this to ourselves? Do we have prejudices in our hearts where we like to think of ourselves as superior to others? Of course, we can deny to others that we are prejudiced, but are we really?
Then, there’s another lesson for us in this story, which is the golden thread that will tie the story to our gospel this week. God calls each of us to continue the spread of the gospel throughout our communities. We may think of ourselves as unlikely or unfit for the task we are called to, but so is Jonah. Are we listening to God’s call? Hopefully, we don’t have to endure the “fish story” to get the message that God is calling us to His service. We are all called to be disciples, just as the disciples were called in our gospel this week. It’s up to us to respond.
In our second reading from 1st Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that time is not unlimited. There will be a time when Jesus will return, and we will have to answer for the lives we led. Did we hear God’s call? Did we respond to it? Or did we cling to our prejudices and beliefs, thinking we had ample time for conversion and repentance?
And in our gospel, we have unlikely men called to be disciples; unlikely because they were simple fishermen, uneducated and unworldly. How could these simple, uneducated fishermen be expected to carry on Jesus’ ministry after his Ascension? Many accounts in the gospels show how these men didn’t understand Jesus’ message. They thought He would become the King of Israel and re-establish the kingdom as it was under King David, and they would sit at His right and left in ruling Israel. But then, read the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. You will see how the power of the Holy Spirit could transform these simple men into great theologians who fully understood Jesus’ mission and could carry on His work. This work has continued through the apostles and their successors (the bishops of the church) for over two thousand years. If God can work miracles through a bigot like Jonah and through uneducated fishermen, just think what He could do with us.
We are all unlikely candidates for discipleship, but God’s call is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to carry out the mission. But we have to listen for and answer the call and be open to the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the strength to carry out the mission.
Reference: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons