3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time



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

Almighty, everliving God, direct our actions according to your good pleasure that, in the name of your Beloved Son, we may abound in good works.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.


LAST Sunday’s and this Sunday’s gospel have the same theme: the entrance of Jesus into his public life, and his need, as well as his desire, to have followers, to have around him a number of people who knew him. He needed people to understand him, to see what he was about. I love the image of the call last Sunday, which was to come and dwell with him, spend time with him, not so much to figure out what he was saying, but rather to realize who he was. And then this one gospel is about leaving everything, dropping the life that you knew and entering into a completely new life. There’s probably nothing more basic than the image of our life with God as a journey into a new life, to be reborn, to have a new heart. I always was excited about that idea, because it seemed as if God would slowly reveal to me the beauty of the life he was calling me to, and as I saw it for what it was — so attractive, so enticing — I would be delighted to become a part of this new life. Even in my own call to the priesthood, I remember being drawn to it in a way that seemed mysterious to me. I didn’t really have a strong sense of the mission I was going to take on, but just that I wanted to do it. I didn’t know what it was that I was going to do. I remember a moment when I first entered the seminary, the first day I was there. I had this overwhelming sense that this was my place. This was the place I needed to be, totally unaware of where it would take me or what it would ask of me or that it would ask me to invite other people into this new life.

The theme in this reading of the gospel, is interesting, because it’s telling you to leave what you know. Then there is a strange time in the church, right after Jesus died, rose and spent time with his people, and then left and entered into heaven. There was a sense that he — well, he said, “I will come back,” and there was a sense that he would come back anytime. So the idea was, “Well, don’t get too engaged in the world.” So the advice one heard from Paul was, “Don’t buy anything. Don’t start a new relationship. Don’t look for a new job, because it’s all going to change.” And they were right on, but they took it too literally, as we often do with the message of Jesus. They thought, “Well, he’s coming back, and so the world as we know it will be disintegrated, and we’ll enter into the next world, we'll enter into heaven.” And heaven is different from here, but the fascinating thing about the journey of this work we do with Jesus is to be in a process when we are continually engaged in the remaking of our own world, our rethinking of it. And what I thought was going to be so easy — just to hear about some wonderful, peaceful place and go there — actually was going to demand that something die, that something had to be destroyed, and that what was going to be destroyed was not something that was just an idea that I could hang onto or not. No, it was something that I based my life on for a very long time, and for me to let go of it was to somehow let go of who I am, my identity. And if you’re asked to let go of your identity and you’re really going to do it, you’re going to go through a real death.

The interesting aspect of this radical change that the gospel calls us to is that the disciples then took on the task of doing the prophetic work of Jesus. Well, they all died martyr’s deaths. It’s interesting. Why? In the Middle Ages, martyrdom was considered to be the highest level of holiness, that you somehow destroyed your life. Well, I don’t think that was it. I don’t think that giving up or giving in to a painful end of your life is the goal of Christianity. It’s not about suffering. It’s about being transformed, and there had to be a dramatic transformation in the lives of the disciples as they entered this relationship with Jesus, because they had all kinds of images of what the kingdom was going to be. They knew  a Messiah was coming, and he was going to be someone wonderful, and he was going to free us from everything that is binding us and limiting us and causing us pain. And they had an amazing excitement about this figure being in the world with them. And I’m sure they had images of the place they thought they would be when Jesus came into his kingdom, and it would be a place of great power. There was really no separation between being the spiritual leader or being the King of the Jews, the King of Jerusalem. He was going to have great political power, and they’d be right there, and you can hear, at times, stories of the journey the disciples took with Jesus. “Where am I going to sit on the big throne? What is my job going to be? Gosh, I’ll be pretty powerful. I never thought I’d have this big a position.” Think of all those images they had of what it would be like to be in the kingdom, to be great, to be powerful, to be in charge, and then to their shock and to their disillusionment, they were told, “No, it’s just the opposite. You have to let go of everything, every image of power, every image of being autonomous, every image of being strong. What you have to give in to is a death, the death of some illusion you’re holding onto that you feel is your identity.” And when you’re in that work, when you get depressed and discouraged and find yourself not who you were and not yet who you will be, and you feel as if you’re nothing, it is excruciatingly painful. I know it. I’ve been there, and many of you have. Sometimes it’s simply called depression, but what it means is there’s a transformation going on.  

The story with which we began this set of readings is so important, because it’s the story of Jonah and the whale, and it’s really an amazing story. It’s composed of three short chapters, and there’s some wisdom in it that isn’t even alluded to in the way we receive the passage today. But it’s such a powerful story about this transformation that I’m trying to put you in touch with, because it happened to Jonah. What Jonah was learning was something radical. He was learning that the God he believed in was a God of punishment and judgment, and he seemed to enjoy that. He really did like the role of the prophet who came in and said, “All of you are rotten and no good, and you’re going to be destroyed.” And he took some kind of joy in their destruction. That was who Jonah was, and he seemed to have an insight into God that was really interesting, because in the Old Testament, it always seemed that God was very willing and eager to destroy the enemies of the people. But this isn’t a story about destroying an enemy of his people, but rather about people who were self-destructing,  self-destructive, and considering what they were trying to do, unable to achieve anything  but death. And so Jonah has this image in his head. He says, “I know this God is merciful. I know he’s going to give in. If people come to him and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ he gives in. So I’m not going to do the work he’s asking me to do. I’m not going to be a part of the salvation of these people. I’m not going to try to save them. In fact, I’m out of here.  I don’t want any part of this transformation, forgiveness thing.” Isn’t it amazing? And so he goes in another direction, hanging onto his desire that, if someone is wrong, someone is bad; if someone does something wrong, they should be destroyed, and he goes off. And in running away from the real work of what a prophet is about, he encounters nothing but death and destruction. He’s in a boat. The boat has a terrible problem, and there’s no clear image for Jonah than to know that, “I somehow am the cause of all this.” And so he throws himself into the water, almost like, “I’m just going to die.” But he’s swallowed by a whale. The whale takes him back, and he has to face God looking him in the face and saying, “I refuse to do what you called me to do,” but in the heart of every prophet is, “I can’t. I can’t not do what God wants.” And so he gives up the notion that all evil people should be destroyed and enters the world of forgiveness and understanding, and he does this by walking through the city for God and watches them all being transformed. He’s still angry though, so God takes him through another set of experiences until he helps Noah [sic] understand — he helps Jonah understand exactly what the problem is. 

He doesn’t understand that the compassion in God is not just to free people from punishment, but it’s also to take pride and joy in the transformation of people. He’s not interested in their being punished for their sins.  He’s interested in their sins as the means by which they are transformed, and he wants to give them the grace to go through it. That’s the issue. How do you go through that kind of transformation unless you know it’s part of the process? In other words, you know that the difficulties and the resistance we have to things that deep down we know are true and we don’t really want to give in to them?  Clinging to that identity — for example, in Jonah’s life, the identity of a person who is in charge of the law — allows him to take enormous pleasure in using the law to punish. Does that sound familiar?  There are lots of people like that, but the most frightening thing is there are more than lots of people like that. There’s a part of all of us that are that way. There’s a part of you, and there’s a part of me that looks into our own life and looks at what’s going on and sees ourselves doing something we shouldn’t be doing, something we’re not proud of, and what’s our response? Compassion, understanding? No. Judgment, criticism, shame, anger.  Isn’t it interesting that, without our realizing it, there’s that same thing? In fact, all the stories of the conversions in the Scriptures are about our own personal conversion, and there is a major shift that must happen when we have the responsibility of getting in touch with our own stuff, our own story, our own life. And if we fall into the trap of Jonah, we realize that there is a part of us that seems to take some kind of  joy in watching that, which is not what it should be, to squirm with the whole notion of being punished, and it’s not so it will change, but because that’s what they deserve.  

How can we cling to a misunderstanding of our lives as tightly as we do?  How can we do that unless there is something in us that is prone to this, something of our lower nature, something in our sense of justice, for sure, but still, it’s something that is a part of human nature.  The bad people have to be punished, yet those images that Jesus used in Scripture of saying, when someone slaps you on one cheek, offer him the other; when someone steals your coat, give him your shirt — none of that makes any logical sense to us. When you hear that and it doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s a good reason to look into where you are when it comes to what you do to yourself when you find yourself, not who you should be. Is it punishment, or is it compassionate understanding that says, “No, this is what I need to look at, and it needs to change. It needs to die.” And then where do we get the strength?  Where do we get the ability to go through this process of dying like that?  Well, it’s not from us. It’s always mysterious that it’s this trust in the God that has put us in this situation, and it’s difficult, and it’s too hard for us to do on our own. And that’s the perfect setup for him to step in and say, “Now, see.  Here I am, and I want to do this for you. I want to change that part of you that seems to take pleasure in self-inflicting pain and shame. I want to make you more compassionate and understanding that you often, like the people from Nineveh, don’t know the right hand from the left.” Most of what we do that is not really good is we’re doing it unconsciously out of some sense that this is what we were taught. This is what’s supposed to happen. This is what feels normal. Nothing in human nature at its lowest level of consciousness is a place where we can stay. Self-survival is not the best motive for making decisions, but being authentic, being an integral, life-giving person is. Somehow being a person who is hard on oneself and beats oneself up, thinking what's going to change is in that horrible place where evil is able to use you, to be the critical voice that it longs to be, to tell you that there’s no hope. There’s always hope. There’s always the promise of life, but it comes with the most curious and strange invitation into death. Create a new heart. “Open me up to be your vessel.” That’s the work of dying and rising, and it’s crucial, core and essential for us to embrace the idea if we’re going to find the kingdom that God has prepared for us. 

Father, we opened this time together with a prayer asking you out of your goodness to fill us with good works.  We so often think that is about taking care of others, but it’s most essential that we do take care of ourselves, do good to ourselves, forgive ourselves, be compassionate, have a sense of humor about who we are. So bless all of us with this gift that so often eludes us so that we can enter fully into the peace of your kingdom, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Madeleine Sis