Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 22 January 2012
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25:4-9; Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
If one didn’t know the story of Jonah, you’d be forgiven for assuming from the reading that this is a perfectly conventional story of a prophet who hears God’s call and obeys and who sees the fruit of his labours when his audience repents. Of course, the story is much more ironic and convoluted than that. This is the second call that Jonah receives. His response the first time is to head off in the opposite direction. It is only after his own ‘repentance’ or turning around, facilitated by an almighty storm at sea and a trip in the belly of a fish, that he sets out to do what God told him to. He doesn’t actually preach repentance to the arch-enemies of God’s people but simply announces their destruction. When they immediately respond by repenting, God completely forgives them as Jonah had feared God would. The pagans can teach the prophet a thing or two about taking the word of the Lord seriously!
Jonah’s own spirituality is miles away from that expressed in Psalm 25. In the previous chapter of the book, prior to his belated obedience recounted in the reading, Jonah sings a psalm of thanksgiving from inside the fish. But even while he thanks God for deliverance, he subtly blames God for his predicament. He also thanks God that he isn’t like the ignorant pagans who forfeit God’s grace. The huge irony is that it is precisely the pagans in the book of Jonah, both the sailors on the ship and the Ninevites, who take God seriously, respond appropriately, and experience God’s grace. In the next chapter, Jonah will accuse God of being compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love. For him these are real drawbacks in God’s character, because it means that God doesn’t hate the people Jonah hates. The worshippers who pray the psalm, by contrast, really want to know God’s ways. They know how dependent they are upon the compassionate kindness of God themselves, and are deeply grateful for it.
The Gospel reading also has the themes of repentance and call, but the whole tone is so different from Jonah’s. Here Jesus proclaims God’s word, but instead of a proclamation of destruction, it is a joyous announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom. Jonah didn’t call on the people to repent – he didn’t want them to. In fact their repentance and God’s forgiveness was the last thing he wanted for them. Jesus isn’t warning his audience to change their ways in order to hold off God’s wrath; he calls them to reorient themselves so that they are able to receive and enter the kingdom. The call is then given specifically to two sets of brothers, fishermen at work. They leave what they are doing and follow. What motivated them was not fear, but attraction. Jesus must have fascinated and intrigued them, his call must have resonated with their own inner longing so that they are willing to step into something new.
Paul also lived with a sense of the kingdom of God being at hand. He advocates the kind of attitude that can drop everything to follow God’s call wherever it leads. His words can be interpreted in a very world-denying way but they need not be. There is a huge if subtle difference between disengagement and detachment. Why would we turn our back on this embodied life that is God’s gift to us, with its relationships, emotions, work to do? But it is one thing to be engaged, it is quite another to be entangled and overwhelmed. In the detached life we hold all these things but we are not trapped by them. The things we own must not own us. Our emotions, deeply felt, are the sun that shines upon and the storms that buffet the landscape of our souls, but they are not the sum total of our selves. In our deepest self we remain free to respond to God’s call, to let go of whatever could hold us back, and to follow Jesus.