Our readings this week focus on a core theme that runs through Jesus’ ministry… repentance. There is no sin so grave that cannot be forgive with true contrition and a return to God. This was the message that John the Baptist proclaimed, and the message Jesus continued as he took up his ministry. This theme not only runs through the gospels, but is a major theme that binds the entire Bible into a cohesive volume.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Our first reading comes from the book of Jonah. The story of Jonah is well known in both Jewish and Christian circles, yet for all its popularity, we only hear it in the Liturgy this once. For this reason, many Catholics only have a passing familiarity with Jonah and his story. They know his name and that he was swallowed by a large fish (or whale), but that’s about it. In our passage this week, God asks Jonah to go through the city of Nineveh preaching that God would destroy the city in forty days. The text states that Nineveh is so large that it takes 3 days to walk through it. Not only is this a Gentile city, but it is the capital of the Assyrian empire (the same empire that defeats the Northern Kingdom some 50 years later). Yet when Jonah delivers the Lord’s message, the people do in fact repent. When God sees this he relents.
Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. While Paul’s message carries with it a certain urgency like Jonah’s, Paul’s concern is with the imminence of the Second Coming, He is basically saying we need to forego the concerns of our daily lives and focus on what is important. While Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians has him walking back a bit from this message of urgency, the basic message is still sound, for them and for us: We should always, in our actions and in our hearts, be prepared for the coming of Christ.
Following along with our theme of repentance, Mark’s Gospel this week shows Jesus picking up where John the Baptist left off… preaching urgency for repentance. Along the way we hear Mark’s version of Jesus’ recruitment of the first Apostles. A rather different take on the story we heard from John’s gospel last week, Mark has Jesus making them an offer they can’t refuse… a sales pitch, if you will, to entice them to come along. Not only was it a good pitch, but it gives us one of the best lines from Jesus in the Gospels, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.”
It’s a shame we Catholics don’t spend enough time with the book of Jonah, because what it lacks in size (only 4 short chapters, easily read in the course of a 10 minute prayer), it makes up for in theological importance. Not only that, but it contains great irony and humor: Jonah’s very name translates to “dove” which Jonah is anything but. As a prophet of the Lord, he is deeply reluctant to deliver the Lord’s messages (which causes him to be swallowed by the big fish). Then Jonah gets upset when God relents from his punishment of Nineveh. Finally after all that, the book leaves us hanging at the end expecting us to figure out the moral of the story for ourselves.
The story of Jonah is an allegory for our own Catholic faith. We continually struggle with God’s ways and wishes for us. What is the moral of the story? We need to find it for ourselves. Jesus taught us what we needed to know, but it’s up to us to accept it.