Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – January 21, 2018
He inaugurated a New Era
Christians believe that the Messiah has already come. The Jews claim that he is yet to come. Who is right?
No doubt, the Jews. We too tacitly admit to the fact that each year we dedicate four weeks to prepare ourselves for his coming.
We anxiously wait for the Messiah, because we are told that “justice will flower in his days and peace abounds till the moon be no more. He delivers the needy who call on him, the afficted with no one to help them. May grain abound throughout the land” (Ps 72:7.12.16). We have not yet seen these prophecies realized, so we keep waiting.
The Messiah is yet to come, but when he arrives, everyone, including the Jews, will recognize him: it is Jesus. His birth into the world is a slow and gradual; the new times, the last, have already started, but have not come to fruition.
One day they reported to Jesus that his mother and brothers were looking for him; he “looking around at those who sat there, said: Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Mk 3:34). Yes, the community of those who listen to his word, trust him and follow him. It is his mother, she is the one who in pain gives birth to him every day, until God’s plan is fully realized: “To unite all in Christ everything in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10).
Immediacy, generosity, decision in detachment from what is old and incompatible with the future world, characterize the response of those who, answering to the call of Jesus, commit themselves to God’s plans.
“Show me, O Lord, your ways and give me the strength to follow you.”
We are in Jerusalem, near the end of the fourth century B.C. Israel remembers with anger and resentment, the deportations by the Assyrians and the bitter experience of the Babylonian exile. Nineveh is still the synonym of the bloody city and Babylon, remains the symbol of the oppressive and idolatrous enemy.
It is the time of reconstruction of the Jewish society. Restorations—as we know—are easily accompanied by fundamentalism, hardness towards others, the inability to leave room for mercy and forgiveness. Israel wants to regain her allegiance to God, but is obsessed with the purity of the breed. She folds back on herself, believes her election is a privilege and not a service. She becomes fanatical, intolerant and is convinced that the pagan nations are rejected by the Lord.
It is in this environment that the author of the book of Jonah is born. An intelligent, open-minded rabbi. A late humorist smiling at the animosity of his countrymen. Soaked in biblical thought, he realized that God is “full of pity and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in truth and loving-kindness. He shows loving-kindness to the thousandth generation and forgives the wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7), who loves every person and chooses Israel to save the heathen, not in opposition to them.
He does not resort to arguments, which are always ineffective against bitterness and ill will. He makes up a story whose main character is Jonah, an obstinate prophet who embodies the petty thoughts and narrow feelings of his people. Jonah means dove in the Bible, the sweet and innocent dove represents Israel (Hos 7:11).
The story is set at Nineveh, the city that, from at least three hundred years, is reduced to a pile of rubble. However, the author imagines her at the height of prosperity and erects her as a symbol of evil, arrogance, violence against the weak. The Israelites hate her and believe that God, being just, shares and approves their resentments and is determined to punish her, to make her pay for the iniquity, to destroy her. But does he really think that way?
Today’s passage responds to this question.
Jonah-Israel did not understand anything about his vocation. “Get up—the Lord orders him—go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it, because I have known its wickedness” (Jon 1:2). Jonah, disappointed, without saying a word, goes down to the port Jaffa. Instead of embarking eastward, he goes to the west, towards Tarshish (Jon 1:1-3). He would rather die than become an instrument of salvation to the Gentiles.
Faced with the stubbornness of his envoy, God is not discouraged. He is too fond of the Ninevites, so he stirred a storm, and Jonah was thrown overboard. A big fish swallows him and brings him back to the shore (Jon 1:4–2:11). For the second time, the Lord instructs the rebellious prophet to go to Nineveh (Jon 3:2). The city “was very large and it took three days just to cross it” (v. 3).
Jonah begins to preach, without enthusiasm, only “for a single day’s journey” Lazy, he does not even reach half of Nineveh and his message is reduced to just five words, the bare minimum. It is a catastrophic announcement, other than that which the Lord had given him. God had not spoken of the destruction of the city, but only the need for the Ninevites to be aware of their wicked life.
Despite the sloth with which the mission is carried out, the people of Nineveh believe in God and are converted. The fact is amazing. With subtle irony, the author suggests the conflict: Israel has not listened to the voice of the prophets, the Ninevites instead, at the first words—badly spoken—of Jonah, have changed their lives. This is what the Lord had said to Ezekiel: “It is not to a people with a difficult foreign language to whom you are sent; it is to the people of Israel. All of them are defiant and stubborn of heart” (Ezk 3:4-7).
Jonah is not just Israel. He is anyone who still imagines God as an avenger, anyone who cultivates the secret hope of one day witnessing the punishment of the wicked, anyone who has not figured out that there are no enemies to defeat, but only brothers to love and to help to turn themselves away from sin so that they can be happy.
Time is short, those who have wives must live as if they have none, those buying something as if they don’t possess, those who use material goods as if they are not using them. This is, in short, the message of the passage. It gives the impression of introducing a certain devaluation of the reality of this world in favor of those of heaven.
This is not what Paul means. He wants Christians to give earthly things their true importance. They are important all right, but will not last forever. Like all good things, marriage, the family, property can seduce and turn into absolutes. They become idols, totally absorb the human heart and make them lose the meaning of life.
To recall the transience of the scene of this world (v. 31) Christians are moved by an unshakeable faith in the Risen Lord. Some renounce marital life, refuse the possession of material good, put their own lives and person at the service of the brothers.
This choice represents the imminence of the future world where there is no more marriage nor death, for they are like angels of God (Lk 20:35-36).
The passage opens with a brief introduction wherein Jesus goes in the villages of the Galilean mountains and preaches the gospel. “The time is fulfilled—he said—and the kingdom of God has come; Repent and believe the gospel” (vv. 14-15).
This is the first sentence he says and it is the synthesis of all his message.
He speaks of the kingdom of God. His listeners, educated by the prophets, know what he actually refers to. For five hundred years, Israel has had the experience of the monarchy. The Davidic dynasty has included also able sovereigns. However, the analysis that the Bible makes of this historical period is entirely negative. Except for a few noble exceptions, all the kings have fallen away from the Lord. They did not listen to the prophets and led the people to ruin. In 587 B.C. the last king was deported to Babylon with his people.
Was it the end of everything? Someone dreamt of the restoration of the Davidic dynasty; some others put their hopes in a future messiah. All came to the conclusion however that only the Lord could revive the fortunes of Israel, personally picking up the leadership of his people, proclaiming himself king in place of the previous unworthy rulers.
It was the beginning of the waiting for the kingdom of God.
In the early books of the Bible there already is a promise: “The Lord is our king” (Jdg 8:23), “The Lord will reign for ever” (Ex 15:18). Promise is a commitment, reiterated by God through the prophets: “I rule you with an iron hand” (Ez 20:33); “The kingdom will be of the Lord” (Abd 21).
By remembering this expectation, cultivated over the centuries by the Israelites, we can understand the explosive charge of the words of Jesus. The time of waiting—he says—is over; it is time of consolation and peace, the kingdom of God is here; the Lord’s promises are fulfilled.
The content of his message is gospel—the good news.
By this we mean a book, but in Jesus’ time gospel meant only good news. All happy good news were called gospels: a military success, healing from an illness, the end of a war, the birth of an emperor, his ascension to the throne and his visit to a city.
At the beginning of his book, Mark presents Jesus as the herald, in charge of proclaiming such extraordinary news to people, so amazing as to arouse great joy in the listeners.
There are two conditions to experience it: one must repent and believe.
To repent does not mean the firm determination to avoid sin or the other, but it is the decision to radically change the way one sees God, man, the world, history.
We always focused too much on the moral conversion. Often little has been understood that the first change to do is about the image of God we made and which we do not like to give up because it is modelled on our thoughts, judgments and sentiments. We are firmly anchored on the Baptist’s words referred to us by Matthew: “Brood of vipers! Let it be seen that you are serious in your conversion” (Mt 3:7) or those that Luke attributes to the precursor: “The axe is already laid to the roots of the tree” (Lk 3:9). Mark leaves more space to the intuition of the good news: “The kingdom of God has come.” It is not the perception of the imminence of a terrible punishment, but a novelty that cheers. There is hope for all, even for the most hardened sinner, even for one who feels like a scum, because God does not considered him a waste but a son.
God already revealed himself thus, not only in the Holy Scriptures, but through creation. For this, when man imagines God, any god, he has to imagine him necessarily good. To convert, then, is to go back to see God so infinitely good, because this is already part of our DNA.
Christ has revolutionized the world. He puts love and compassion as its foundation, correcting first the idea of God that is deformed within us.
To convert is also to change the way of looking at man and creation. It is to start seeing everything from the perspective of God, from God’s part, of the loving, patient, slow to anger, full of kindness and interest for his creatures, of the God who knows how to distinguish what appears and what is, the accidental course from the basic choice, the ephemeral from what is lasting.
To assimilate this image of God it is necessary to live in a permanent state of conversion. One will never reach the perfection of the Father who is in heaven, but we must continually work towards it. Who considers himself already converted stands outside the kingdom of God. To feel calm, yes, but never satisfied.
Then one must also believe, that is not equivalent to accepting a package of truth. It means to follow Christ, with the certainty of arriving, among the numerous contrasts and renouncements, to the fullness of life. To believe is to trust him, his word and his promise: “See I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). To believe is to accept his answers to our questions with unconditional confidence.
The second part of the passage (vv. 16-20) introduces the call of the first four disciples destined to become, after the resurrection of Jesus, the heralds of the gospel.
The episode is divided into two parallel moments corresponding to the calls of the two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew (vv. 16-17), James and John (vv. 19-20).
The version of the events referred to us by Mark is different. From the historical point of view, it is difficult to reconcile it with that of John (Jn 1:35-51).
The goal of Mark is not to offer a detailed account of what happened. He does not intend to meet even our legitimate curiosity. He does not tell us, for example, if the four fishermen had already met Jesus, if they had seen some of his miracles. It does not explain how they could give up everything without raising any objection, without questions. He wants to give a lesson of catechesis to anyone who one day feels called by Jesus. The passage does not refer to the vocation of priests and nuns. It speaks about the call of every person to be a disciple. It is about the vocation to baptism.
The scene goes fast, so much so that it is almost hard to follow the frames. Jesus, the protagonist, is moving quickly, in a hurry not only in walking, but in speaking, in inviting to follow him. Its looks like a race against time. In fact it is the anxiety to announce that “the time has come.” There is no choice but the need to hurry to become part of the reign of God.
It was noted that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus never stops: passing along the Sea of Galilee (v. 16), he calls and does not turn back to see if the disciples have accepted his invitation. He goes straight over (v. 19), calls the other two and then continues on his way without stopping for a moment (v. 21). Who wants to follow him cannot delude oneself: the road ahead is not easy. The Master leaves no rest even for a moment. He does not grant months off, days or hours of vacation. He demands that the disciple keeps pace, always.
Then other characters appear: Simon and Andrew, James and John. They are not praying or performing some especially important action. They are simply practicing their profession.
Other vocations in the Bible took place in similar circumstances. The prophet Elisha received the invitation to follow Elijah while he was in the field plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him (1 K 19:19-21). Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law (Ex 3:1), Gideon was threshing wheat (Jdg 6:11), Matthew was busy collecting taxes (Mk 2:13-14).
God does not turn to the idlers, people without ideals, without concrete benchmarks, but to those who are fully inserted in their social, economic, family context. The adherence to Christ in faith is never a stopgap, a consolation for those who failed in other goals, but a proposal made to committed people and realized in life.
As all the vocations of which the Bible speaks, that of following Jesus is also completely free. The disciple knows and follows the Master because he is called, because it was revealed to him and offered as a gift. Who is aware of this is not proud nor despise those who have not joined Christ. He thanks the Lord for what he has received and commits so that he can create, also in others, the favorable conditions to receive the same gift.
From the beginning, Jesus presents himself as a master different from those of his time. They remained in their school waiting for the disciples to meet them to learn the lesson and then go back to their homes. The teachers were not choosing the disciples but the disciples were choosing the teacher.
Jesus does not want disciples who seek him to learn a lesson, but people who walk with him, who share his life’s choices.
The first four disciples respond immediately to the call. They trust in Jesus and follow him, even if the destination is still unknown, and the fate to which they are called will be clear only later.
The Ninevites were granted forty days of time to accept or reject the invitation to conversion. Elisha was allowed to “say goodbye to his father and mother” before following Elijah (1K 19:20). To his own Jesus does not grant any postponement. To one he will say: “Let the dead bury their dead; as for you, leave them and proclaim the kingdom of God. Whoever has put his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:59-62).
The answer to his call must be given immediately. The separation must be total and immediate; nothing can prevent to follow him. Even the most sacred affections, such as those that bind one to the parents and the family, attachment to one’s profession, the need to have an economic and social security, the desire not to lose friends, everything must be sacrificed if it is in conflict with the new life to which Jesus calls.