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January 21 2018 (B) Third Sunday of the Year

  1. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection and Dialogue: Change of heart and believe in the Gospel

First Reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10). The people of Nineveh renounce their evil behaviour. The book of Jonah is of a special kind. Jonah was a prophet sent by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, an empire that was renowned for its cruelty, and had oppressed Israel and the surrounding nations. Israel had a very special hatred for Nineveh and its people. When God first asked Jonah to go at once to Nineveh and to cry out against them because of their wickedness, Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord. He suspected that what God had in mind was that Nineveh would repent and be forgiven by God. Jonah went on board a ship but ended up in the stormy sea, to be swallowed up by a large fish and  returned to dry land. Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah as we read in today’s text. Jonah went to Nineveh and preached God’s word there. The people of Nineveh listened, proclaimed a fast and repented, and were spared the punishment God had threatened them with. That is he message of this reading, and of the entire book of Jonah. God is merciful towards all and far beyond what Israel believed of him, merciful towards all, even towards Israel’s greatest enemies.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 24[25]). Lord, make me know your ways.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 7:9-31). The world as we know it is passing away. In his dealings with the church of Corinth and in his advice to them, as is clear from the letter, Paul is pastoral and realistic. He knows that its members have to live in the real world, in contact with the society that surrounds them. In the part of the letter from which this reading is taken he had to deal with questions such as how best to serve the Lord, questions relating to marriage, celibacy and related issues, and this leads him in this present text to present his own view that the end of the world, with the return of Christ, was near. This belief leads him to advise the Corinthian church to be detached from all things, and not to let anything come between them and the Lord, the one thing necessary. Of course, history did not end as soon as Paul believed it would, and some of what he has to say and advise in this reading belongs to Paul’s own day and beliefs. But it, nevertheless, holds true that due attention should be paid to the essence of what Paul has advised: nothing should be allowed to come between believers and the Lord, while they pay due attention to those matters which Paul advised them not to unduly bothered about. Jesus himself had given similar advice n the Gospels.

Gospel (Mark 1:14-20). Repent, and believe the Good News. Jesus, apparently, did not wish to have his own public ministry coincide with that of John the Baptist. In any event he began his only after the arrest of John. John the Baptist preached and baptized by the Jordan, outside of Galilee, in Judea with a possible ministry also in Samaria. At a given time he passed on to the third section of the Holy Land, Galilee, and in doing so he came within the jurisdiction of the local tetrarch, Herod Antipas, and was arrested and imprisoned. Jesus began by proclaiming the Gospel, the good news, of God, from God. His proclamation was solemn. The time is fulfilled, he said, ad the kingdom of God is close at hand, or has come near. In Jewish tradition there was from Abraham and the prophets onwards a time of promise, of waiting. The time of expectation, Jesus proclaims, was now over; fulfilment had come, with the kingdom of God near at hand. What was called for in such circumstances was a response, given in the words: “Repent and believe the Good News” (the Gospel), but repent, repentance, in the fuller sense called for here: “Have a change of heart; change one’s ways”. This would mean a change from one way of life to another: to believe in the Good News, the Gospel of the kingdom to be preached by Jesus. Thus it is that “repent” (in this sense) and “believe in the Good News” mean more or less the same thing.

            Mark, and after him Matthew and Luke, lay great stress on the call of the first four disciples, four whom had good and permanent employment as fishermen. Mark also stresses how rapidly these left everything to follow Jesus in his way of life, and in his journeying through Palestine. This calling of the first apostles was set in the gospels as a model and example for the Church in future generations, a model of faithfulness to Christ and an inspiration for individuals who might feel themselves called to minister in Christ’s service.

            The sudden character both of the call by Jesus and the response to it may well cause some surprise, as if it were the first time that Jesus had met these four. However, we know from the Gospel of John, in the passage read at last Sunday’s Mass, that some of these four had already met Jesus at the Jordan where John the Baptist was preaching, and that at least one of them was a disciple of John’s and that others probably belonged to his Baptist movement.

  1. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Change of heart and believe in the Gospel

There is material for personal reflection and dialogue with any period in history in today’s readings. Jesus’ call in the Gospel reading to repent, for a change of heart, and belief in the Gospel, is addressed to individuals and society in any age of history. As already noted, repentance here means a change of heart and a change in one’s ways, and is practically the same as belief in the Gospel. That call was valid for every person and society of Jesus’ day, and later, and is still valid in our own day. All Jesus’ disciples, from Simon (Peter), Andrew and others onwards had to make that change of mind and direction. For the first disciples and the Jewish community of Jesus’ day it would mean a change from what was central to their lives directed by their tradition and the law of Moses to the Gospel and its values. The same principle held when the Gospel message was preached beyond Judaism, to Greek and Roman culture. There, too, it was a call to a change of focus and ways to the Gospel and its message, to the new community of believers created by the Gospel.

            For us and the Church today the call still holds, but it is not always easy to determine what change of mind, of mindset, of direction, is indicated by Jesus’ original call. Today’s first reading from the prophet Jonah provides material for reflection. The message of this book is that God’s love and understanding of  the human race, even of the Jews’ sworn enemies, went far beyond what the people of Israel or the prophet Jonah were prepared to accept. When first called, Jonah did wish to preach God’s message to the people of Nineveh. At the end of the book he tells God that the reason he fled to sea at the beginning was that he knew that God was a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah was a grumbler, getting angry about many things. God’s reply to him, which serves as an ending to the entire book, are very telling. God says: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also so many animals?”.

            In our own day the Church is trying to find ways in which to enter into dialogue with contemporary life and culture, and how it should change its mind and ways so as to make the abiding love and mercy of God better known to the modern mind, while at the same time remaining true to the Gospel message. Pope Francis is particularly interested in all this. We can all reflect on these truths and pray to God that any dialogue will have a positive outcome.