Over the years we have learned that living in the middle east, the culture was tribal and family centered. A person’s home town was like an anchor or stake that centered or protected a person in a world where a single or unattached person was seen to be in danger. We see today in the gospel and from the last few weeks, that Jesus has left Nazareth. He has encountered John the Baptist(and been baptized, but not in Mark’s gospel) and now we see Mark say the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. In Mark, there is kind of urgency for Jesus to get to the desert. It is as if in those forty days, Jesus was communing and preparing with a different family. Spiritually he was preparing his ministry, being attended by the angels and in his new family meeting Satan and what that entailed. Perhaps, his first encounter with Satan away from the protection of his earthly family. But with his time of preparation done and John having been arrested, Jesus went to Galilee and began to preach: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
As we ponder that today, I would like to say we all have busy schedules and not a whole lot of time for lent. But most of you have smart phone and tablets or computers and email. I would suggest for lent that you can get the daily Mass readings for lent in an email every day simply by signing up at the catholic bishops site on-line. It is free and you can read it where ever you read your email. In this way you can receive a thought each day as Easter approaches. The link is below.
I want to take a look at what St Paul’s letter said this morning. It seems that in many ways he seems to criticize everybody. He says being single means that a person is free to be concerned about things of the Lord. Married people, he says, are concerned about their spouse and things of the world. Yet in the very beginning of Genesis, we see God say it is not good for a person to be alone. In fact, Christ made marriage a Sacrament because it is the very normal and spiritual way that most are called to follow Christ to salvation. It is a partnership of love centered in Christ. Certainly married couples have troubles and all the problems of the world, but you know single people have problems too. Being single does give more time, but being alone, childless is not always the gift he makes it seem. Further he seems to imply that married people are less spiritual than single people. It is just not true, as there are multitudes of holy and spiritual married people. For some reason, the church through the centuries has focused on the single people, the religious, the clerics. But let’s be honest, the church is made up of all the baptized. Sanctity and sainthood comes for all who live their lives in the faith and love of Jesus Christ.
So, to sum up, I would say we should realize that the married person, and the single person(whether lay, religious or clergy) reflect God’s love in different ways and different paths. Yet, truly, God has made each of us individually and calls us each individually, except those who are married, he has said that then two have become one flesh.
Today’s gospel from Mark gives a slightly different account of Jesus’ call of his disciples. First we see that John the Baptist has been arrested, and also that Jesus has started his ministry. This means that the disciples had an awareness of him and possibly that is why they answered his invitation so readily. God’s call did not always come easy in Israel’s history. Many of the prophets only reluctantly answered God’s call. A prime example was Jonah in our first reading. But we see that in the end God got his way even with the reluctant. Jesus was preaching that it was time to repent and believe the good news. He had a message and it was new. But first a person must repent, turn around, change and hear the good news. Hearing the good news means attaching oneself to Jesus. That was the ultimate turn around, made first by Jesus’ disciples and passed on even to us today. Jesus’ call was to a way of life, to a lifestyle, to living together in a community he came to call a church. It entails a whole new way of life and worship, that Jesus began by fulfilling God’s plan that included even his dieing and his resurrection. The good question today is can we with all the interruptions and daily problems still commit ourselves fully to Christ as the First disciples, who left their Father and their boats and followed Jesus. Surely sometimes it is easy, but at other time it is difficult and challenging. But we must remember always we have Jesus and the Strength of his Cross to get us through whatever we face.
So let’s start with 2 questions this morning. Who here has ever suffered through a homily that claimed Jonah was a true story? Given that our Gospel is about Jesus calling apostles, who has been taught the primary topic of our 1st reading is about the call of Jonah as a prophet and how important it is to be obedient to God’s call?
Jonah is a kind of fable; it is like Aesop’s fables in the way it uses fish and cattle to add some humor to it. It’s also like Jesus’ parables, since it is a short story that has a twist in it that we might not see coming. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria), the most ruthless and feared nation in the Middle East at the time. The Assyrians destroyed Israel in 721 BC. They conquered through particularly brutal military tactics, including wholesale slaughter, and are remembered as the first people to attempt to rule the entire world. That sheds some light on why Jonah was particularly unwilling for this mission. He likely figured his probability of being tortured and killed upon entering Ninevah about 110%. Besides, the Assyrians were deeply hated mortal enemies of the Israelites, not people he wanted to sit next to. God wants to save their souls? Jonah can’t possibly see this mission as worth his life.
So when God called him, he understandably ran to find the first boat sailing in the opposite direction. Even the sailors, who worshiped idols and nature-type gods, understood Jonah’s God better than Jonah did. It is telling that in his prayer for God’s help, he says, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy, but I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you, Lord.” In fact, the sailors found mercy by throwing Jonah into the sea, while vain Jonah neither praised God nor was willing to sacrifice much of anything. The mood is set when the whale “spews Jonah up the shore;” even the whale wants nothing to do with him.
So God tells Jonah, for a 2nd time, to announce the message that God will give him. God has to give Jonah a script of the message of repentance to read, since Jonah has clearly no desire to save the Assyrians, no interest in sharing the Word of God with them, and no love for them as neighbors. But, wonder of wonders, they repent. And God forgave them, and decided not to destroy the city. Jonah was livid with anger and told God off. “Isn’t this what I told you,” Jonah screamed, “I ran away because I knew you would forgive these scumbags. Take my life, I can’t endure this.” He simply couldn’t accept that the Assyrians had destroyed his homeland and killed so many innocent people without a thought, yet God would forgive them because they repented.
There is still more history behind this hatred. Israel had lapsed into worshiping idols again before the Assyrians overran their county. The prophet Amos had warned the Israelites that unless they repented, God would not protect them and they would be taken captive. Amos had a very personal way of explaining it to them: God can’t dwell with you any more than a man can maintain a true marriage with his wife who commits adultery. Still, the Israelites reasoned, weren’t the Israelites God’s Chosen People? Didn’t God love only them? Didn’t God at least have to protect them because they had the Temple, the priesthood, the Ark?
So, after Ninevah prayed for mercy and did acts of penance – the King, all the people, even the cattle and the sheep wore sackcloth to express their grief – Jonah still sat and waited for God to come to his senses and destroy the city of Nineveh. At first, God had a large plant grow up around Jonah to protect him from the sun. The next day, as an object lesson, God had a worm destroy the plant, and Jonah became faint from the heat, and he told God he was so angry about the plant dying that he was angry enough to die. God’s response is this: “You pity the plant, although you did nothing to grow it and only had it for one day. Then should I not pity a great city of 120,000 people, and their cattle, which didn’t know any better?” One part of the lesson is: God’s mercy and love are not only for all people, but all of his creation.
.Jonah was so absorbed in his self-righteousness and pity, he was not longer rational. How did Jonah get so confused? That is the other and primary point of this story. Not quite 100 years after the Assyrian invasion of Israel, the Babylonians invaded, and leveled the country, again, taking most of the people captive, again, for some 40 years. The people left behind were the poor and marginalized, who then intermarried with other tribes in the area. These became the people called the “Samaritans.” (Note: the Babylonians also leveled Nineveh.)
When the Israelites were released to return from captivity, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a strong and narrow-minded Jewish nationalism developed. People were required to prove by lineage that they were “pure” Jews, and those with mixed lineage, like the Samaritans, were barred from participating in government or religious life. Prior to this, a person could become an Israelite by marriage or coming to live and participate in the community. But by the 4th Century BC, Israel had closed in on itself, no longer sharing their faith. This story is a call for Israel to repent, and to preach and practice God’s mercy and forgiveness. By putting a mirror up in front of the people, the writer hopes to show them the folly of their faults and bring them to repentance for their sins of exclusivity and hatred.
Jonah is a 4th Century BC teaching story with lots of implications for today’s world. It is the story of love and gentleness as the one successful response to hatred. It is a lesson of the faithfulness of God and how faithfulness is required from us to be able to walk with God in right relationship. It is about when nationalism goes far beyond civic pride and falls into unwarranted presumption of privilege, particularly privilege which degrades others.
Every day is “the time of fulfillment, the Kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus told us. We also need to stop and repent of those sins we only recognize when we see them in others. One of the reasons Jesus was surrounded by disciples was to give us people to relate to. We can better hear Jesus’ teachings by identifying with the disciples mistakes.
And that means we all need to become increasingly aware of not only what we do but what we do not do. I see pictures of refugee camps and starving children daily, yet I live very comfortably. What I do not do speaks very loudly to me. Do I think I am more valuable than a child dying of starvation and cholera in Yemen? Does God find people in one nation innately more loveable than elsewhere? Being God’s chosen people brings greater responsibility, not greater privilege. Just a few blocks from us, around Coates Elementary School, live a lot of people who God chooses, too. Perhaps they should be here, sitting next to us?
2nd Sunday Ordinary time. 1-14-18
We begin our readings in the middle of the story of Samuel. Who is Samuel, how does it matter; and why is he sleeping in the temple next to the Ark of God? The answers are found by returning to the 1st chapter of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah, and Hannah. Peninnah was very proud that she had given Elkanah several children. She purposely teased and taunted Hannah and upset her by bragging about the children. Hannah was unable to have a child, a cause of social disgrace in that culture. Children were a measure of a woman’s worth.
One day Hannah went into the temple to pray. She was weeping and moving her mouth in silent prayer. The Priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and scolded her. She told him that she was not drunk, but upset. Then Eli blessed her and later she had a son, who she named Samuel. (Hannah’s desire for a child is very like the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.) Then Hannah prayed in thanksgiving, saying, “My heart exults in the Lord….I rejoice in thy salvation. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.” (It is a prayer that is very much like Mary’s Magnificat.)
When he was old enough, Hannah brought Samuel to the temple to stay with Eli, so that Samuel could learn the ways of God and grow up in God’s presence. The Jews of that time believed that the Spirit of God lived in the temple, and filled the Ark of the Covenant. What better place for the boy to sleep than next to the Ark?
Eli’s sons, who were to succeed him as Priest, were disobedient to God and their father. But we are told that “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.” (Luke’s Gospel tells us that after the boy Jesus talked with the teachers in the temple, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”)
When Eli finally understood that God was speaking to Samuel, he taught him to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.” Those words are carried into our Psalm. In Psalm 40 we read, “Sacrifice or offerings you wish not, but ears open to obedience you gave me….so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll. To do your will is my delight.” And the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jesus as reciting this Psalm this way, “I have come to do your will, O God.” John’s Gospel has repeated instances when Jesus listened to God.
So Samuel’s story has elements that are very familiar. The Gospels draw on the stories from Jewish history to give us the message that Jesus was indeed “The One Who was to Come”. The people who first read these Gospels knew by this that Jesus was the Messiah.
So the 1st reading and the psalm prepare us for the Gospel. It is like the difference between saying to a child, “Here’s your milk”, and taking a child to a dairy farm, where they can see and touch a cow, hear it moo, and watch as the milk comes from the cow into the tubes to the tanks where it is pasteurized and perhaps chocolate added. That brings about understanding for the child. We need an understanding of some of the many ways the Jewish scriptures are not separate, but very connected to the New Testament. We see patterns that are not yet complete, and we have a sense of anticipation about the message of Jesus, the Messiah.
John the Baptist heard the message, and he foretold the coming of the Messiah. He did the will of God when he baptized Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day, where our reading picks up, he said it again. It initiates a chain reaction which changed the course of history. Two of John’s disciples heard him, Andrew and John (we think), and they immediately followed Jesus. It must have been a scene permanently engraved in John’s memory, because he even records the time of day. The implication is that staying that long with Jesus is a sign that the men were dedicated to remain with Jesus. From there, the excitement spread to Peter and beyond.
This is different from the calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Luke. Remember, John is not writing to preserve a step-by-step historical record of the events as our culture might expect. John is instead writing to explain who Jesus was, to reveal the character and motive of Jesus’ ministry and purpose. Still, John’s rendering of his joining Jesus at this time is supported by Peter’s remark in Acts 2:21-22. Peter wants to fill Judas’ place with someone “who accompanied us beginning from the baptism of John.”
The verb “follow” and the directive “follow me” appear 4 times in 6 verses, and many other times in the Gospels, don’t mean to just to walk along with. It is a much deeper connection. Notice that Jesus initiates the conversation. Jesus has come to earth to save the lost. Jesus does not hesitate to get to the heart of the issue; he asks, “What are you looking for?” These men would not have been disciples of John the Baptist if they had not been seeking a fuller life with God – something deeper than just living and then dying. “Where are you staying?” is a desire to know Jesus fully. His response, “Come, and you will see” conveys that he is open to their questions and offering a challenge to their faith.
This scene introduces us to many of John’s key words. “Coming” to Jesus is to have faith; “seeing” Jesus is to understand his message. As Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the primary authorities on John, puts it, “If the training of the disciples begins when they go to Jesus to see where he is staying and stay on (abide) with him, it will be completed when they see his glory and believe in him.” All this adds to our understanding of the scriptures.
But what do we do with it on Monday? Fr. John Pilch writes that this gives us a highly successful pattern for telling others about Jesus: (1) A believer in Jesus (John the Baptist) tells someone (his disciples) about Jesus and (2) he uses a special title of Jesus (“Lamb of God”). (3) The believer shows that person Jesus (in acts or words). (4) Jesus then calls the newcomer and brings them to faith.
We, then, are to live honest and true lives for all to see. When people ask us why we act this way, we can share our faith. When people around us get discouraged or mired in bad choices and we respond with compassion, or when we are generous to those in need, we give people who watch us reason to believe what we say. When we are in conversation, opportunities arise to explain why we go to church and believe in God. We can speak of our faith with confidence and pride, and answer questions about our beliefs. The Holy Spirit will intervene with a gift of understanding and love. This has always been the primary way of sharing faith, person to person, and will likely remain the primary way for Christianity to thrive and flourish. Someone tells us, we go to Jesus, see where he is, and stay with him to see his glory.