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Reflections for the III Sunday in ordinary time

God’s call to discipleship, with the response of repentance, conversion and renewal of life expected from us, is the main theme of the day’s readings.

Jon 3:1-5, 10; I Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1: 14-20

Homily starter anecdote: # 1: The management forgives you: J. Edwin Orr, a professor of Church history has described the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Protestant Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century, which resulted in real metanoia.  As people sought to be filled with the Spirit, they did all they could to confess their wrongdoings and to make restitution.  But this created serious problems for the shipyards along the coast of Wales.  Over the years workers had stolen all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows to hammers.  However, as people sought to be right with God, they started to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property.  There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards put up signs that read, "If you have been led by God to return what you have stolen, please know that the management forgives you and wishes you to keep what you have taken."  In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges each one of us to revive our lives with a true spirit of repentance.

Introduction:  God’s call to discipleship, with the response of repentance, conversion and renewal of life expected from us, is the main theme of today’s readings.  No matter to what life, work or ministry God calls us, He first calls us to conversion, to reform, to repentance -- to continually becoming new people.  Those who are constantly being reformed by the Spirit will be able to follow, as true disciples, wherever God leads.  All three readings today underline the absolute necessity of such repentance and ready response to God’s call.  Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading tells us how the prophet Jonah’s response when God called him and told him to go to Nineveh was to take ship immediately for the furthest point he could get to in the opposite direction from Nineveh!  Why? We don’t know. Perhaps he was scared. Or perhaps it was because he hated the Gentile people of Nineveh and thought that they were not worthy of God's gracious mercy. In any case, Jonah ran away. God had to halt Jonah in his flight and give him three days’ “down time” in the belly of that great fish before the prophet was ready to accept the Lord God’s “second chance” and go to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.  Far from being hostile, however, the people and the King of Nineveh, promptly responded to God’s word as preached by His prophet, repenting in sackcloth with a fasting, trusting that the Lord God “might” spare them.  In the second reading, Paul urged the community in Corinth, and us, to lose no time accepting the message of the Gospel because Jesus’ second coming could occur at any time.  Today’s Gospel describes how Jesus entered Galilee and began preaching. Like John, Jesus also called for repentance.  But Jesus added the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It still is, for where Jesus is, there is the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus called on his listeners to believe in the Gospel or the Good News of God’s love, mercy and salvation. When Jesus invited Simon and Andrew and James and John to join him and help in his preaching and healing ministry, they promptly accepted his call, for discipleship is the only complete response a believer can make to that proclamation and invitation. The two greatest aspects of discipleship in Mark are being with Jesus and sharing in his mission. Disciples are invited to be with Jesus on a great spiritual journey and to share in Jesus’ mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom in word and deed. In describing the call of Jesus' first disciples, today's Gospel also emphasizes how we, sinners, are to respond to Him with total commitment, abandoning our accustomed attitudes and styles of life to follow Him in thought, word and deed. 

First reading explained, Jonah 3:1-5: The first reading shows us that we should respond promptly to God’s call for repentance.  The Book of Jonah was written in Palestine around the 5th century BC, after the Babylonian exile. Like Jonah, they wished God would destroy the nations they perceived as His enemies.  For Jonah, the Ninevites were terrible people doing terrible things.  The story of Jonah was intended to rebuke the Palestinians’ smallness of vision, and to teach them that God had care for other peoples besides themselves.  The first two chapters describe how God responded to Jonah’s flight from His call and the mission He had assigned the prophet: He allowed him to experience a deadly storm followed by an excruciating experience in the belly of a whale.  At God’s second call to preach repentance in Nineveh, Jonah obeyed – and he was disappointed to see the ready response of that evil city to God’s message of repentance and a change of life! Jonah had not even finished the first day of his preaching journey before the people had totally turned around – doing visible penance while asking and hoping for God’s love, reconciliation and forgiveness.  Contrary to Jonah’s expectations, the pagan peoples of the city "believed in God" and "renounced their evil behavior".  But perhaps the greater change, the more radical turnabout, happened in Jonah himself.  Jonah had been an arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded prophet.  But he finally realized that God’s love is not limited – God’s forgiveness is not to be contained – God’s offer of salvation is for all – and we’d best not thwart it.

(Lessons taught by Jonah story: Not an historic account, but a didactic fiction, i.e. a story told in order to educate, the Jonah narrative had a double lesson for the inhabitants of Judah. First, in sending the main character of the story to foreign, pagan, Nineveh, the universality of God’s saving purpose was underscored. Second, in the bigoted persona of Jonah, the parochial and nationalistics were to recognize a caricature of themselves and to accept the challenge to broaden their concerns in order to bring them into line with those of God. Moreover, the value and quality of spirit attributed to the Ninevites was intended to awaken in the people of Judah an attitude of respect for and acceptance of others, who were often regarded as sub-human or as animals (dogs, swine). Notice that when Jonah preached his short message, the Ninevites believed God (v. 5). Conversion in Nineveh was effected, not by prophetic eloquence (“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!?!”) but by God’s power. http://www.ncrpub.org) .

Second Reading explained, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: The second reading also urges us to be converted and to accept the “Good News’ preached by Jesus. Thinking that the end was near and the second coming of Jesus would happen soon, Paul preferred that no one get married and that slaves not try to gain their freedom (1 Cor 7:8, 17-24). But the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World makes clear that it is precisely through engagement with the concerns of the world that Jesus’ followers are to exercise their discipleship. Saint Paul had to be strict and detailed in his moral teaching to the Christians in Corinth because Corinth was a bawdy seaport with a typical seaport's set of ethics and some very bizarre philosophical ideas.  Hence, Paul spent all of chapter 7 on marriage and sexual morality.  He told the Corinthians to live in total freedom and detachment because nothing they had, whether things or personal attachments, was permanent, and everything could disappear at a moment's notice.  Whether life is very good or very bad, nothing lasts except the fundamental values of truth and love, of freedom and justice. In the end, it is who and Whose we are, not what we have that counts.  Hence, let us ask to have the freedom to follow the call of God and to be ready to go wherever Jesus is asking us to go. 

Gospel Exegesis: Invitation to repentance: It is highly likely that Jesus and the four followers he summoned here were not strangers.  Even if they had not personally met each other before this time, they were aware of each other's aspirations and objectives.  Jesus used exactly the same words John the Baptist had used:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  The Greek word used “metanoeo” means to change one's mind or direction.  Repentance means that we make a complete change of direction in our lives.  This involves a radical conversion (metanoia), a change of direction and priorities in our lives.  For Jesus, repentance is not merely saying, "I'm sorry," but also promising, “I will change my life." Real repentance means that a man has come, not only to be sorry for the consequences of his sin, but to hate sin itself.  We often think of repentance as feeling guilty, but it is really a change of mind or direction -- seeing things from a different perspective.  Once we begin to see things rightly, it might follow that we will feel bad about having seen them wrongly for so long.  But repentance starts with the new vision rather than the guilt feelings.  By true repentance we are giving up control of our lives and throwing our sinful lives on the mercy of God.  We are inviting God to do what we can't do ourselves -- namely to raise the dead -- to change and recreate us.  "Repent" is used in the present tense -- "Keep on repenting!"  "Continually be repentant!"  This means that repentance must be the ongoing life of the people in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is the theme of Jesus’ preaching. This Kingdom is any society where God’s will is done as it is done in Heaven. Hence, a person who does the will of God perfectly is already in the Kingdom of God.  Matthew, as a devout Jew, consistently uses the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" while Mark, a Gentile convert, uses the phrase "Kingdom of God," without any scruples about using God's name.  We probably shouldn't interpret the "Kingdom of God" as Heaven where God rules.   In telling us that the Kingdom has come near, Jesus is telling us that we can dwell in this Kingdom now, provided we repent or turn away from the idols that crowd our lives and do the will of God as it is done in Heaven, thus allowing God to reign in our lives.  

Believe in the “Gospel” or “Good News.”  It was preeminently “Good News” that Jesus came to bring to men.  The Good News is that God is our loving and forgiving Father and not a punishing judge, and that He wants to save us through His son Jesus.  So St. Paul calls it the Good News of truth (Gal 2:5; Col 1:5), Good News of hope (Col 1:23), , Good News of God's promise of salvation (Eph 1:13, 3:6), Good News of peace with God and man (Eph 6:15) and Good News of immortality (2Tim 1:10).  To believe in the Good News simply means to take Jesus at his word, to believe that God is the kind of God that Jesus has told us about, to believe that God so loves the world that He will make any sacrifice to bring us back to Himself.  To believe in the “Good News” involves a total commitment – the investing of one's whole self in God without any guarantees or preconditions.

The call of the apostles: “The evangelists were not precise chroniclers of Jesus’ words and works. Rather each inspired writer, with his own personal talents and sources, has taken the oral tradition preserved within his community and has shaped a Gospel according to his own Christological and soteriological insights, and in keeping with the pastoral situation and concerns of his readers. For this reason, the same events, e.g., Jesus’ calling of his disciples, have been presented somewhat differently by each of the evangelists.” (http://www.ncrpub.org). Just like Matthew’s, Mark’s account of this call is very brief.  Jesus calls two pairs of brothers – Andrew and Peter, James and John – inviting them to become his disciples.  The men respond immediately, leaving their nets, their boats, and their father to follow Jesus. These fishermen immediately accept Jesus’ invitation to use their skills to “fish for people.” Abandoning their nets is a way of speaking of what must be left behind when one embraces radical discipleship.  Usually rabbinical students sought out their teachers and attached themselves to them.  However, Jesus, as rabbi, takes the initiative and calls some probably less-than-ideal candidates to be his students.  The disciples were simple fishermen with no great background.  In Cicero's ranking of occupations (De Off 1.150-51), owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last.  What Jesus needs are ordinary folk who will give Him themselves.  What Christ needs is not our ability, but our availability.  What Jesus teaches His disciples is not a course of study, but a way of life to follow.  Hence, Jesus offers these men the opportunity to observe him at close range on a daily basis.

Call to make fishers of men: In the ancient world fishing was a metaphor for two distinct activities: judgment and teaching.  “Fishing for people” meant bringing them to justice by dragging them out of their hiding places and setting them before the judge.  And “fishing” was also used of teaching people, of the process of leading them from ignorance to wisdom.  Both cases involve a radical change of environment, a break with a former way of life and entrance upon a new way of life.  We are the fish and what God promises us who are dragged out of the water in the nets to die is a Resurrection, a new life, a new family, a new future, all under God's control, all within the Kingdom of Heaven, which has come near in Jesus.  We have very little control over our own lives, but as fish caught in the net of God's love, we can trust that we are under God's control.  We have to believe that being captured by God's love, that responding to the command to repent and die to self, that being raised to a new life by God, is not only right for us, but is a message we need to share with the entire world.  The disciples will be trained to do precisely what Jesus is doing right now:  proclaiming the Kingdom, recruiting people for it, and drawing them into a community that experiences God's reign. 

Life messages: 1) We need to appreciate our call to become Christ’s disciples: Every one of us is called by God, both individually, and collectively as a parish community, to continue Jesus’ mission of preaching the Good News of God’s Kingdom and healing the sick. 2) We are called individually to a way of life or vocation: – a religious commitment (priest, deacon, missionary, religious Sister or Brother, marriage partner or single person), plus a particular occupation rising from our talents (medicine, law, teaching, healing, writing, art, music, building and carpentry, home-making, child-rearing ….).  Our own unique vocation should enable us to become what God wants us to be.  As St. Francis Sales puts it, we are expected to bloom where we are planted. 3) Our call, of course, begins with our Baptism and the other Sacraments of Initiation. It is strengthened through the years with the Eucharist and Reconciliation, healed and consoled by Anointing and, for those so called, made manifest in the sacraments of Matrimony or Holy Orders. The amazing truth is that God is relentless in calling us back to Himself even when we stray away from Him. 4) Let us be thankful to God for His Divine grace of calling us to be members of the true Church. Let us remember that it is our vocation in life as Christians to transmit Christ’s Light through our living, radiating Jesus’ unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness and humble service to all in our society.( Fr. Antony Kadavil)

18 January 2018, 14:07