Homily: Give Jonah a Break

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10        1 Corinthians 7: 29-31        Mark 1:14-20

I’d like to call today’s reflection, “Give Jonah a break.”

The First and Third readings of today’s liturgy give us a very sharp contrast in how people respond to God’s calling.

Jonah was called by God to be a prophet to the city of Nineveh. Instead of going east to the city, he gets on a boat and goes west, as far away as he can from the call. His resulting adventure is worthy of the Odyssey; it includes being thrown overboard from a ship and swallowed by a whale and finally thrown up at the very point he was ordered by God to go — Nineveh.

We could berate Jonah for his lack of faith or courage, but it is more helpful to identify with him for a moment. He was given a mission impossible. Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of its day. It was a city of conquerors, Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed thorough while going somewhere else, kind of like I-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for being an international diplomat He would get even less respect than Ambassador of, say, Palau would get in Washington. (You get extra credit, by the way, if you actually know where Palau is!)

Imagine yourself suddenly being sent to Syria where the government is perpetuating a genocide of Christians in the southern area. God tells you to march through the hot desert and tell their leaders to repent, to stop the genocide, to hold democratic elections and respect everyone’s civil rights, use their wealth for the good of all the nation’s people. Do you think you would get their leadership to dress up in sack cloth and ashes?

Or, for that matter, imagine going to Washington, and demanding that elected officials stop the legalized robbery of our nation’s resources because of payoffs by lobbyists, especially in the oil and gas industry.. Do you think you could bring both houses of Congress to put on sackcloth and ashes? See what I mean? Jonah had a mission impossible. Jonah may be one of our patron saints. The world conspires to make Jonahs out of all of us. The world beats us down and tells us that you can’t change the big picture, so just fall in line and make the best living that you can for yourself and your family.

Our values may tell us we need to head East to Nineveh, but we turn around and walk west and get on the boat with Jonah, because it’s just too hard. We spend some of our precious time in the belly of the whale, out of touch with our calling, our sense of meaning and purpose.

Several years ago Michael Lerner wrote in “The Politics of Meaning” that too often we give up on our deepest held values of compassion, caring and community because they don’t seem practical in the real world.  And so instead, selfishness and materialism prevail by default. Those are the values that we settle for when our deeper values seem out of reach.

 Whether we consider ourselves liberal or conservative or apolitical, individualism and materialism are powerful determinates of our lives. We may not have meaningful work or chances to make a difference, but materialism tells us that we can at least drive a comfortable car. We may not be able to bring about racial reconciliation or even have the kind of relationships we want, but individualism tells us that we can pursue our own happiness and find our own little oasis of peace of mind. Ironically, these attitudes give us less freedom and less power.

 Selfishness and materialism make it less possible to live the life we want. It puts us more out of purpose. Jonah’s way seems easier at first, but in the end we’ll get thrown overboard and end up in the belly of the whale.

Then, in Mark’s Gospel, we read the story of how Peter, Andrew, James and John, are called by Jesus to be disciples. And while it took three chapters for Jonah to get to Nineveh, in four remarkable verses, these fishermen leave their nets, their security, and their families to follow Jesus.

I know that I’d want at least 48 hours to think through my decision, to weigh the consequences, to think about the family fishing business and the implications of the career move. And by the time I’d done all that, Jesus would have moved on to the next town.

Mark tells us nothing about their inner deliberations, whether the fishing was good or bad, if they were religious people or not, if they got along with their father or had a sense of wanderlust. Mark merely says, “And immediately, they followed him.” “and immediately,” —  is the most common phrase in Mark’s Gospel; it occurs 33 times in only 16 chapters. (And, by the way, this phrase never occurs in Jonah!)

There used to be a TV show called “Early Edition.” It was about an average guy with a good heart and modest prospects who received an early edition of the Chicago Sun Times every morning that tells not of yesterday’s news, but what was actually going to happen today, unless he did something to change the future.

He spent his day trying to avert various disasters and when he was successful, the news in the paper actually changed. He had two friends, one who urged him on, and the other, more like Jonah, counseling him to let some things go because there are some things you just can’t change.

In remember one story, where he reads that an airline will explode and kill 150 people at O’Hare Airport on take-off unless he does something to stop it. He heads out, but the traffic is totally snarled so he heads for the trains to the airport. He has only 30 minutes till the plane is to take off.

As he waits for the train he reads the paper and sees a story about a six-year-old girl who was hit by a car and she dies because the hospital thought she had only minor injuries and they failed to examine her properly. Just then he sees the little girl going by on her bicycle. He has to make a split-second decision.

There are 150 people about to die on the airline, but he may not get there, while the little girl is just down the street. So he runs after the little girl, reaches just her moments after she’s struck by the car. He scoops her up and races her on foot to the hospital. At the hospital, nobody believes she is badly hurt. But he finally pressures a doctor into examining her, and the doctor finds the problem and saves the girl’s life.

In the end as the hero slumps in the hospital waiting room and rests, the doctor comes in after the girl’s surgery and apologizes, admitting that he has been jaded,  forgetting the human dimension of his work. And he says, “You saved more than that little girl’s life today. You may have just saved mine as well.”

Then the little girl’s parents come to see her and her father is wearing a pilot’s uniform. Yes, he turns out to be the pilot of the airliner that would have exploded, but was called off the runway because his daughter was struck by a car. It turned out to be a two-for-one rescue!

I miss shows like “Early Edition”, and Joan of Arcadia, wrestling with the dilemmas of what our role is in other peoples’ lives. How would we act differently if we knew the potential difference our lives could make for others? In our cynicism, it’s easy to forget that providence may work through us, that God brings about good by weaving together our daily decisions.

In Mark’s Gospel, the simple message Jesus delivers is, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Believe the good news!” Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time with in-depth theology, or in analyzing the big picture as they do on the talk shows on CNN or on Sunday morning on the networks. Jesus is more intent on telling us that God is near, His power is at work. Hear this good news and follow me – immediately!

Do you sometimes wonder if all our political analysis of world problems, our therapies and our self-improvement tapes are just ways of avoiding the simple, life-changing power of the call of Christ? “Love your neighbor. Feed the hungry, House the homeless as if you were doing it to me. Abide in my love and I will abide in you. Let your light shine before all that they may see the glory of God. The reign of God is among you, within you. If you have faith, the mountain shall be moved.”

How could the disciples simply jump out and follow him? As Peter says later, “Master, now that we have seen you, where else could we go?”  Now that we know him, where else can we go?


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