Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 26, 2003
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10; PS 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20)
"The reign of God is here; turn around and believe the good news!"
At this point we have left behind the season of Advent and Christmas, when we were focused on waiting for the Lord's coming. And we have some weeks yet before the church will invite us to enter more deeply into union with Jesus' passion, in Lent. This what the church calls ordinary time. It's where we live the greater part of our spiritual lives, isn't it? Ordinary people, doing ordinary things in our search for God, alongside other ordinary people.
And the church gives us two striking stories of ordinary people being called by God; what the message was; and how they responded.
First there is Jonah. But did you know that today's story of Jonah going to the Ninevites is the second call of Jonah to be the servant of God's word?
What do we think of immediately when we hear the name Jonah? Why, that whale, of course. But that whole wild tale of the whale took place the first time he was called. It happened when he was running away from God, trying to avoid God. Listen to the beginning of the book:
This is the word of the Lord that came to Jonah ... "Set out for the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.... But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the Lord. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going down to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.
"Away from the Lord" -- what a frightening expression.
You know, our first impulse when we sense that God might be calling us is frequently like Jonah's. "I don't want this responsibility. I'm afraid of what it might cost. To say what needs to be said, to go against the crowd." His response should be perfectly understandable; to bear the word of the Lord is a scary responsibility.
But when he is called the second time, he goes. And he has to go to a heathen people, to a place where he thought God couldn't be. After all, God was with his chosen people, wasn't he?
And what happened? They listened. And were converted.
The story is really one of contrast with a similar account, of the call of Ezechiel (ch. 3):
God said: Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them. Not to a people with difficult speech and barbarous language am I sending you, nor to the many peoples . . . whose words you cannot understand. If I were to send you to these, they would listen (!) to you; but the house of Israel will refuse to listen to you, since they will not listen to me. For the whole house of Israel is stubborn of brow and obstinate of heart.
And then we hear the account of some other ordinary folk. Fishermen: Simon and Andrew, James and John. After 2000 years of Christian teaching we've made them into super people; we've seen their statues and paintings. I suspect that in their village they were so ordinary that the other fishermen probably had nicknames for them: "Hey, Si, how ya doin', baby? Whazzup with Andy and Jim and Jack?"
And we read that upon meeting Jesus they followed immediately. They "abandoned their father", they "let go and went off in his company."
(We hear a lot of people proclaiming their support of 'family values' these days. And they want to enlist Jesus in their political cause. It's ironic, because it has been noted that no religious leader except Jesus mounted such a direct attack on the biological family.)
We read that they saw him "as he made his way." Scriptural scholars tell us that that phrase is technical biblical language. Jesus wasn't just taking a stroll along the lake. To "make his way" was a phrase meaning he was manifesting himself, revealing who he was and what life is all about, showing forth his identity. This was for them a form of epiphany, a whole new sense of meaning, and it transformed them.
And what was the message? The kingdom, God's reign, is here, it is in your midst. It is already happening. That is the good news. And if you grasp that, it will invite you to change and believe.
Notice the sequence: open your eyes and see what's going on, and then you will be converted. Matthew writes some decades later to a predominantly Jewish community and reverses the sequence, giving the Baptist's call: "Reform your lives; the kingdom is at hand."
God's kingdom is not something you and I have to make happen. God is already ahead of us, at work in our ordinary situations. And beyond that world we call "church". In places we might be thinking "Oh God couldn't be working there!"
Our challenge is to listen, to observe, to wonder, to be attuned, to enter into what is already ahead, what is going on, where God might be found. It is not to be afraid of a big, bad world out there that is without God -- there is no such thing!
A Jesuit friend of mine is a fine New Testament scholar, and he reminds us that the scriptures never speak of us building the kingdom of God. You know, we have songs that put it that way. God is doing the building. It is already in our midst. We have to name it.
Just think of what we say on the Our Father. Your kingdom come. The way some people act, you'd think they were really saying, "Help me to build the kingdom."
The ordinary is not ordinary, it is already extraordinary.
I don't know where God might be calling you to bring his word, to disclose the meaning of some situation; that's for you and your personal prayer. It might be the word of comfort to someone in pain; or the word that intervenes between two people in a family who are alienated from one another and calls them to reconciliation; or perhaps the word of apology you or I are called to make for something we have done, the word which accepts our responsibility and makes us accountable for our actions.
Paul in First Corinthians gives us the clue to the attitude we need to have on our journey through life. We are called to be present, to be engaged, and committed. When he tells the Corinthians that they should use the world as if they were not using it, he is not counseling withdrawal and apathy. Paul was such a firebrand, you'd never hear him inviting us to back away! He's challenging us to an inner detachment, to be passionate in such a way that our ego and our interests don't get in the way and mess things all up. It is true that everything in our world is passing away, but that doesn't mean it is worthless. Precisely the opposite: the kingship of God is being worked out in each of these very ordinary situations and choices. Our call is ro respond to the God at work there. As we receive the Lord in Communion let us ask for his mind, his focus on the Father who was always leading him.