3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 24, 2021
While our personal knowledge of the sacred scriptures may vary widely, I’m sure that just about every one of us who is listening to this homily can make an association with the reluctant prophet spoken of in the first passage proclaimed in today’s Liturgy of the Word. If I say “Jonah,” what’s the first thought/word that comes to your mind? … Most of us probably responded “whale” – or more precisely as the scriptures note – “a large fish,” recalling that it was Jonah who was swallowed by a large fish and lived to talk about it.
Now a follow-up question. Do you know the circumstances that led to his encounter with this large fish and ultimately that prompted him to preach a message of repentance and God’s mercy to the people of Ninevah? … Let’s talk about Jonah’s background a bit. As incredible as his story may appear to be, it speaks powerfully to our lives and our world today.
Jonah was something of a reluctant prophet. He was called to preach a message inviting the people of Ninevah to change their lives – to repent – to be converted – and to embrace the mercy of God. Seems straightforward and reasonable enough. The problem for Jonah, however, was the fact that Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria. The Assyrians were Israel’s greatest and most notorious enemies who had plagued Israel for years with invasions, death, persecution and torture. With Assyria’s dreadful treatment of Israel as background, Jonah didn’t believe for an instant that the people of Ninevah were worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness, let alone his efforts in preaching to them. What’s more, in addition to the Assyrians’ dreadful treatment of Israel, Jonah also believed that God’s saving relationship with Israel was somewhat exclusive. In other words, Israel was God’s chosen people. Anyone outside of that scope of reference simply didn’t deserve the chance to repent and be forgiven – especially Israel’s enemies.
So when asked by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah responds with a resounding “No!” … To avoid the prophetic call that God was extending to him, Jonah got on a boat and sailed in the opposite direction of Ninevah. A storm comes up. The crew on the ship think Jonah is bad luck. They toss him overboard into the raging waters. He is scooped up by the great fish – and eventually spewed out on the shores of – you guessed it – Ninevah. With nowhere else to hide, Jonah reluctantly preaches repentance to a people whom he feels do not deserve a second chance. Much to his surprise, they repent! … In the end, as is always the case, God’s plan prevails over Jonah’s misguided beliefs.
For as sensational as the story of Jonah may be, it speaks powerfully to human nature and our relationship with God, doesn’t it? As has been the case since the earliest days of salvation history, people like Jonah – and me and you – tend to put parameters around how God should act in relationship to his creation. We place limits on God’s love and saving grace. And we – who are all so desperately in need of God’s mercy – amazingly decide who is worthy of being loved, forgiven and saved by God.
Friends, when we allow ourselves to assume such a role that belongs to God alone, look what happens. We keep people at a distance. We judge actions and motives with no substantive reason to do so. We become critical of individuals simply because of their appearance, the sound of their voice, the place of their origin, their economic status, their lifestyle or the manner in which they seek to worship God. And when we continually justify such divisions and build upon them – even by doing so in a benign manner from the quiet of our homes or a sacred space like our parish church – we contribute to the polarization that has become rampant in our world, our country and tragically even in our church – and we bruise the very Body of Christ made up of all of God’s children created in God’s own image and likeness.
Brothers and sisters, the good news of the scriptures today is that the people of Ninevah repented and changed their ways. The same opportunity to move beyond our brokenness and to begin our lives anew – over and over again – is a grace extended to all of us: a grace dependent not upon our righteousness or some erroneous belief that we’ve cornered the market upon God – but a grace rooted solely in God’s love and mercy. May we make as our own these words of Jesus taken from today’s gospel passage, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. … Come after me. … Repent and believe in the gospel.”