Orbiting Dicta

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: A Tale of a Whale

This morning I noted that Church documents still call this the “Third Sunday of Ordinary Time,” as opposed to “Third Sunday of the Year,” which is correct as things go, not least because this is the fourth Sunday of the year 2021. But I have some reservations about “Ordinary,” which from a liturgical point of view makes sense but that’s about it. We are living through an unusually extraordinary period of time, globally and locally. People long for “normalcy,” although what that was varies considerably, much of it depending on the socio-economic bracket and perhaps the ethnic and age group one belongs to.

In any case, the extraordinary events of our time are not likely to diminish for months, if ever. I suppose it was always the case and today’s readings suggest that – and a way to muster through sometimes seismic shifts in our political, economic, and personal situation.

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

The extended parable of the Book of Jonah provides a good example. The shortest work in the Hebrew Scriptures, it has little to do with the real Nineveh. I know because I visited the site several years ago. It borders the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. In fact, however, Nineveh was one of the largest cities of the ancient world, the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy. But rather than a three day’s walk, it takes about thirty minutes to walk from wall to wall. And the big fish that delivers Jonah by air from the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of Nineveh (located on the banks of the Tigris, it is nowhere near the sea), is a machina ex Deo that provides some comic relief. Actually, the whole book is a comedy with a relatively happy ending. In actual fact, Nineveh came to an inglorious end when it was conquered and destroyed by an invading Babylonian army in the late seventh century BCE.

But that is not the point, even though Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is still the most popular motif in northern Iraqi art and has influenced Christian and Muslim scripture from the beginning. In a nutshell, Jonah is about the saving graces of repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Even the animals put on sackcloth and the Book of Jonah ends with a declaration of divine solicitude for the “cattle.”

The segment we hear today from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to have little to do with all that until you realize that what the Apostle to the Gentiles is preaching is ultimately about heeding the word of God, as Jonah and the people of Nineveh finally did. But it is no less and more urgently about repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Paul urges his readers to unglue themselves from this-worldly reoccupations and pay attention to what really counts.

It’s a timely message. Today, it is impressive and gratifying to witness the massive effort of some of those hardest hit by the current pandemic and economic downturn to care for those even more desperate. Even children are collecting and helping distribute food and clothing. The heroic efforts of the medical community to treat and hopefully save those attacked by the virus, even at the cost of their own health and lives, is a testament to love and compassion. The metanoia of the people of Nineveh from lowest to highest led to their salvation (at least in the story), and it points the way for us.

Our third reading, Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples, follows on the version we heard last week from the Gospel of John — as if reminding us that Jesus knew well whom he was now calling to follow him. He asked, simply enough, that they abandon the way of life they had followed so long and worked so hard at and become fishers of men and women, harvesters of souls, salt of the earth, and light to the world. This is what Jonah and John the Baptist and Jesus all preached and what Paul wrote about. They are simply telling us not to identify ourselves with the moments of passing experience, not to build monuments to our sense of self — or lack of it. Like Nineveh, these will fade away into the ruins of time.

No, as Paul insists, in all that we do, whether we eat or drink, whether we marry or remain single, or anything else, we are to fix our minds and hearts first on God’s presence and glory [1 Cor 10: 31]. The rest, as Jesus promises, will sort itself out. But neither he nor Paul encourage us to disregard the world, whether social or natural, for one remains the sole arena of our salvation and the other points sacramentally to the merciful presence of God. And so we work for peace and justice, we strive to save the world, not, like old Jonah, to rejoice in its destruction.

We could learn a few things from Jonah. Like him, and so unlike Jesus, we find it very difficult to forgive, even when our enemies repent and do penance. We prefer revenge, as witness the sudden upsurge in executions in the federal prison system after a 60-year respite. For some reason Americans seem to find forgiveness difficult — especially when matters of race, color, and class are involved. And when the subject of rehabilitation arises, most people simply shrug and change the subject.

Like Peter, James, and John, our task is not to reject the world, nor even to leave it, but to transform it, to claim it for God by our peace-making, our love, our compassion, and our prayers. The true sign of Jonah is the everlasting love and saving compassion of God.

Yes, we can learn something from the Book of Jonah.