By FATHER DONALD DILGER
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
Our first reading is from the Book of Jonah. A rule of interpretation or understanding of a biblical document is to know the form of literature in which it has been written. Jonah is not written as a history. It is a story or parable. Like Jesus’ parables, it is a creative teaching story aimed at a situation or perhaps the correction of a situation at the time of its composition. Jesus was not narrating a history in his parables. He made them up. The same must be said of the author of Jonah. The date of the book is uncertain, but sometime after the end of the exile of Israel in Babylon, so after 540 B.C. Although we cannot be certain, the story of Jonah could be a worthy response to the ethnic cleansing policy of two Jewish leaders in mid-fifth century B.C. Jerusalem. They were the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemiah. It was their policy to destroy all marriages between Jews and non-Jews to rid the land of the foreign spouses and the children of such marriages. See Ezra 9 and 10 and Nehemiah 9:2.
There is no connection between this fictional Jonah with the 8th century B.C. prophet Jonah ben Ammitai mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Giving the chief actor in the story the name Jonah ben Amittai begins the irony of the story. The word Jonah means dove with its implication of a dove-like personality — gentleness, trustworthiness. The Lord calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, capital city of Assyria, to preach repentance. A similar situation would be God sending an American missionary to preach repentance to Nazi Germany. Assyria was a centuries long enemy of Israel. Jonah disobeys and goes on a cruise to Tarshish (Spain). A violent storm on the sea causes the sailors to pray to their gods. Jonah was asleep while the storm was raging. They awaken him telling him to appeal to his god. Jonah identifies himself as a disobedient prophet. At his request they throw him overboard, “and the sea grew calm.” Details are well known — 72 hours of singing psalms in the belly of a large fish, becoming fish vomit, and a second chance to obey God.
Jonah obeys. After just preaching in the suburbs of Nineveh, the whole kingdom repents. Jonah is furious because he hates these foreigners. He sits on a hill under a hot sun hoping God would still destroy the city. God causes a castor oil plant to grow over night to give Jonah shade the next day. Then God deputizes a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah is madder than ever. God teases him. Then the moral of the story: “You are upset about the castor oil plant. And should I not feel sorry for Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people, who can’t tell their right hand from their left, besides all the cattle?” End of story! God loves all people, even those we consider our enemies. Reason for selection of this reading: in today’s gospel Jesus calls his first disciples.
Psalm 25 does not seem to pick up the theme of vocation or calling, though one phrase could describe Jonah, “God shows the sinner his ways.” The people’s response is “Teach me your ways, Lord.” To this could be added, “just like you taught Jonah, but no fish, please.” In the second reading Paul is concerned with the imminent end of time and the return of Jesus. Therefore, the time is too short to change one’s status in life — from single to married or vice versa. He writes, “Let those who have wives act as though not having them.” Isn’t there too much of that already? Paul of course thinks Jesus’ return is imminent. Let’s face it. Paul was wrong! The world did not pass away, nor did Jesus return. The same could be said for the author of the Book of Revelation. In 22:20 he depicts Jesus saying, “Surely I am coming soon.” We are in trouble indeed if we fail to understand that not every word in the Scriptures is revelation!
Today’s gospel opens with a reference to John the Baptizer’s arrest by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. We know that after his baptism by John, Jesus and his disciples engaged in their own baptism of repentance ministry. See Gospel of John 4:1-2. They must have been operating along the northern part of the Jordan River, which formed the eastern border of Galilee, Herod’s territory. The connection between Jesus and the Baptizer was well known. It was time to change tactics in ministry, or Jesus could expect the fate of the Baptizer. This was not just suspicion but a real danger as can be seen from Mark 6:14-16, Matthew 14:1-2 and especially Luke 13:31, where Jesus was warned by friendly Pharisees that Herod sought to kill him. For his new ministry, preaching and healing, Jesus settled in Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. From there, if necessary, he could easily escape by land or sea from Herod’s police. Though we learn from the Gospel of John that Jesus called disciples in Judea before returning to Galilee. Mark does not seem aware of this, but depicts Jesus calling his first disciples in Galilee.
Jesus comes across the fishing company of two brothers, Simon and Andrew, sons of John. In our time their business would be called Johnson Bros., Ltd. They were wealthy, as archaeology has shown in what is thought to have been the Johnson home next to the Capernaum synagogue. Jesus calls the two brothers. “They abandoned their nets and followed him.” Grace builds on experience, so Jesus says to these fishermen, “I will make you fishers of men.” Their instant and complete response to Jesus’ call is a problem because we know they were family men. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5 tells his readers that Simon Peter and the other apostles were married and took their wives with them in their ministry as apostles. Whatever the situation in history, in our gospel of this liturgy Jesus moves on. He comes across another fishing company, the Zebedee family. Two teenagers, James and John Zebedee were in their father’s boat mending nets. Jesus calls them to follow him. They left their father and his hired men in the boat and ran after Jesus. Is this possible? Yes, if we understand that Jesus was known to Zebedee, was in fact his nephew, (on Jesus’ mother’s side of the family). With his new disciples Jesus settles in Capernaum, and the ministry of preaching and healing begins.