The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jonah.
We only heard a small fragment of the Book of Jonah and so were deprived of much of the joy of hearing the story of the Prophet Jonah in its entirety.
The prophet Jonah is called by the Lord God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh the significance of which is lost if one doesn’t know the historical context of the story.
The city of Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, located in what is today known as Iraq. The Assyrians were the mortal enemies of the Israelites, having invaded and conquered the northern territories of the once mighty Kingdom of David. The inhabitants of these territories were 10 of the ancient 12 tribes of the Israelites, and as a result of the Assyrian invasion, these 10 tribes would disappear from history. Think about what a catastrophe this must have been like for the Israelites- to have so many of members of their nation deported, enslaved, killed and finally, disappear.
If the Israelites despised the Assyrians they had good reason.
Jonah is an Israelite and God wants him to go to the capital city of the Assyrian empire and preach repentance so as to save the people there from God’s wrath.
The great drama of the Book of Jonah is that the Israelite prophet doesn’t want to do what God is asking him to do. He would prefer that Nineveh and the Assyrians were destroyed. But despite the creative ways Jonah resists, God has his way and Jonah preaches repentance, and barely utters a word of warning and he becomes the most successful prophet in Israelite history- the Assyrians repent and the city of Nineveh is spared destruction.
The lesson here is not an easy one, especially if one has been wronged by someone and expects that what we would prefer to happen to that person is also what God also wants.
When we have been hurt by someone, as the Israelites had been hurt by the Assyrians, our desire for justice is often such, that what we want most is for that person to experience at the very least, the pain they have inflicted on us. Wickedness should be punished and the wicked should know wrath. God setting things right means him bring to bear on wrong doers a terrifying justice- this is what we expect.
But the Book of Jonah offers us God’s perspective on matters of justice and articulates that his preference is that sinners repent, and by repenting be saved, rather than destroyed. The lesson might strike someone who has never really been hurt as comforting and edifying. But if you have been hurt, you might find yourself as perplexed as Jonah that God is willing to be so generous- even to those who have done terrible things.
The ultimate expression of God’s willingness to forgive is revealed in the cross of the Lord Jesus. In the terror of the cross, humanity proves itself capable of torturing and killing God and God in response, would have been justified at bearing down upon us with the full force of his wrath, and yet, surprisingly, mysteriously, that is not what God does- but instead he transforms the very means we used to torture and kill him into the means of reconciling us to him.
Most of us have our own ideas about how God should set a world gone wrong, right, and the lesson of the Book of Jonah is that God has ideas of his own.
The Apostle Paul has his own warning for us in our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament First Letter to the Corinthians. His warning is about becoming unduly attached to worldly things and realities, even good and important things and realities. Why? Because this world is passing away and ourselves along with it. We can appreciate what is worldly, even love it. But worldly realities can only suggest to us what is eternal, and we should never elevate what is worldly to our ultimate concern or give to it an honor and attention that should only properly belong to God.
To do so is to make idols, false gods and the great temptation and capital sin of the Bible is to do precisely this. We may take comfort in our idols, convince ourselves that their false promises are true, but in the end, our idols are swept away along with us- they cannot endure the test of time nor grant us access to eternity. Only the one true God can do so, only he can restore what we believe to be lost and bring life out of death. This is what God has accomplished in Christ, and he has revealed Christ to us so that we might believe and understand that beyond this world is a world for us that is without end, and this world without end is the one that really and truly matters, and what we have in the here and now is not an end in itself, but a means to bring us to eternity.
Finally, Christ’s Gospel connects our first and second reading, demonstrating that the two texts are preparing us to receive Christ’s revelation.
Note that the first words of Christ’s public mission are a call for our repentance, reminding us that we are all, each of us, sinners and in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.
Christ comes into the world, into our lives, as Jonah came to Nineveh, insisting that we repent. The difference between the two being that Jonah was reluctant, and Christ is zealous to set us right. He wants to forgive us, for what we have done, for what we have failed to do, and our willingness to repent will indicate that we want the forgiveness that he wants to give. Repentance is receptivity to the grace Christ offers to us.
It is not an easy thing to repent because we are proud and to repent means admitting that we have been wrong or that we are lacking. But no one truly receives the Gospel who has not first repented. Yes, we might hear the words, even know the great doctrines and dogmas of the Church, even appear to the world to be virtuous and righteous, but we will not be in a position to receive the Gospel, the revelation of Christ, unless we first repent.
Also in this Gospel, Christ summons the first of his disciples, the men who will become for him his apostles and the progenitors of the new tribes of his Church.
Once summoned, the do for Christ what the apostle Paul would later insist that we all one day must do- take leave of worldly things and realities.
So extreme is the detachment of these first disciples that they even leave behind, for the sake of following Christ, the means of their livelihood and even their families.
It would be this radical response to Christ’s summons that would become the condition for the possibility for the flourishing of the Church in every age of her long life. You see, the Church is not sustained and does not grow from bureaucracies, offices, procedural handbooks, personnel departments, corporate centers, property management or employees. It is not institutions that sustain and grow the Church, for institutions do not give life, they merely, at their best, house the life-giving activities of the Church.
The Church is sustained and grows from the commitment of men and women who are willing to make the commitment of the first disciples their own- to leave all things for the sake of Christ, to give their lives over to him with the same totality that Christ gives his life to us.
If you sense a kind of stasis, a neuralgia, depriving the Church of the vital energies needed for its mission. If you perceive in the Church an absence of generativity and life, ask yourself and try to identify where are those men and women who embody in their way of life the commitment of the first disciples- forsaking all for themselves so that Christ might sustain and grow his Church from the gift of their lives. Where are disciples such as these- because it is from them, and only from them, that the Church can flourish and grow.