Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Sunday Scripture

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Response: Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

Jonah is such a beloved text – but this is the only time it appears in our Sunday readings during the three-year lectionary cycle. Jonah 1 begins: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah.” This is a typical prophetic introduction to a message from God. But then the rules of prophetic texts are immediately shattered – the prophet disobeys God’s command! The reader gasps.

Jonah refuses to obey God’s command that he preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Much later – in 4:2 – Jonah explains his disobedience. In short, Jonah wants his enemies to suffer. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrians, who had made war against the Israelites – killing and brutally treating them. Jonah refuses to preach the Lord God’s message to the Ninevites. He wants them to suffer God’s punishment for their sins. Jonah does not want the Ninevites to repent – and thus to receive God’s mercy. Thus Jonah shows himself to be the opposite of a good prophet. He is disobedient, stubborn and vengeful. This text uses humor to contrast God’s mercy with human vice.

Jonah 2 describes his time in the belly of the great fish – ending with the fish vomiting out Jonah onto dry land at God’s command. Finally, in Jonah 3, he resentfully obeys God’s command to preach to the people of Nineveh. Today’s reading is from Jonah 3. Similar to Jonah 1, it begins: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” Sadly, our lectionary text omits the humorous twist – “a second time.”

Will Jonah obey God this time? After suffering at sea and in the fish’s belly, Jonah finally submits to God’s will. Jonah preaches God’s message to the Ninevites. To Jonah’s dismay, the Ninevites immediately repent – led by their king! The king decrees that all Ninevites shall fast and dress in sackcloth – uncomfortable, penitential clothing. In a humorous twist, the king of Nineveh even demands fasting and sackcloth from the cattle and sheep. So God does not destroy Nineveh – showing them mercy.

The last chapter, Jonah 4, is a thing of beauty. The people of Nineveh repented for their sins, but Jonah has not repented of anything. Jonah is angry that God has shown mercy to the Ninevites! Jonah resents God for making Jonah an instrument of God’s mercy to his enemies. In the final verses of the text, Jonah angrily pouts on the edge of the city. God causes a plant to grow, which gives Jonah shade from the sun. But then God sends a worm which devours the plant. Jonah explodes again in anger, while the sun beats down upon his unprotected head. To paraphrase, God tells Jonah: “Look – you are concerned about the well-being of a plant, but you are not concerned about the well-being of the 120,000 people of Nineveh.” God emphasizes his merciful concern for the people of Nineveh – and even for the cattle (a note of humor to the humorless Jonah). The text invites us to laugh at Jonah’s many failings – but also to recognize ourselves in Jonah.

The Responsorial Psalm (Ps. 25:4-9) begins with synonymous parallelism – two phrases of near-identical meaning in a row: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths.” Repetition gives emphasis, and the emphasis here is on the ways/paths of the Lord. How can we follow the path of the Lord if he does not first make it known to us? For this we pray.

“Remember” is the keyword of the second stanza – asking the Lord: “Remember your compassion” and “remember me.” The full text of Ps 25:7 includes a third request of God: “Do not remember the sins and transgressions of my youth.” Let the church say, “Amen!” The psalmist invokes “your kindness (hesed)” and “your goodness” as he asks God to answer these prayers. The final stanza twice speaks of “the way” of the Lord – like the first stanza. God teaches his way to both sinners and the humble.

In the 1 Corinthians text, the first line is essential: “I tell you … the time is running out.” This explains Paul’s words about marriage, weeping, rejoicing and property. To be Christian is to have a radically different relationship with the joys and sorrows of this world. Christ will soon come again! Thus every earthly joy and sorrow will soon pass away! Any sorrow can be endured if it passes quickly. Any passing earthly joy fades to nothingness before the eternal joy of life in Christ Jesus.

Indeed “the world in its present form is passing away” – to be replaced with something far greater: the kingdom of God – a new heaven and a new earth. If we truly believe this, our daily decisions are no longer motivated by our own earthly gain. Our daily actions will be a powerful witness to the good news of Christ Jesus. To be a saint is to be earnest.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ first preaching in Galilee. Jesus’ message is eschatological. That is, he is announcing the arrival of a new age – called “the kingdom of God” – which contrasts with the current age of sin and death. Jesus commands us: “Repent!” The new age is arriving: “the time of fulfillment.” We must repent so that we may be judged worthy to belong to the kingdom of God.

Next, Jesus calls his first disciples. We can almost see the seaside and smell the fishing nets. We meet two pairs of brothers. First is Simon and his brother Andrew. Second is James and his brother John – the sons of Zebedee. For both sets of brothers, when Jesus calls them they respond with earnest obedience. Simon and Andrew immediately abandon their nets and follow Jesus. James and John surpass even this. When Jesus calls them, they abandon the hired men and their stunned father Zebedee in the boat. The “Sons of Thunder” follow Jesus – quick as lightning.