Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 24, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Three days in the belly of a giant fish, three days of walking and preaching through Nineveh, and three days in the tomb are three touchstones for our prayerful reflection on this Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. I have three points for our reflection: resistance, resentment, and repentance. 

Resistance. We meet Jonah in today’s first reading after he has been released from three days in the stomach of a giant fish. The Lord had called Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach and to prophesy to the population about impending destruction by the Lord because of the very grave evil that they committed. First, Jonah initially resists and runs from the call of the Lord and ends up in the belly of the giant fish. Jonah is resistant to the call of the Lord not because of the dangers involved with being a prophet of the Lord. He resists because he so disdains the Ninevites and the evil that they perpetrate that he believes they deserve the wrath of God — that they should be thoroughly destroyed for their arrogance and cruelty. He wants no part in their repentance.

Nineveh had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire. This empire had crushed the Israelites and had enslaved them and abused them, especially their women, adolescents, and infants. Nineveh was reputed to be even more corrupt and debauched than the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the ways that these cities mentioned elsewhere in the Bible were reputed to be debauched. The Ninevites worshipped many false idols that involved various and perverse rituals of mutilation and even the human sacrifice of infants. Such practices of the Ninevites were rampant and unrestrained within the huge city and not simply “safe, legal, and rare.” Jonah righteously believed that if anyone deserved the wrath of the Lord God, it was Nineveh. So, when the Lord asks him to go to Nineveh to call for their repentance, Jonah boards a ship and travels in the opposite direction. Jonah resists and attempts to evade God, and this begins a series of disastrous events that culminates in Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish after spending three days in the fish’s belly. We might think of this time of Jonah spent in darkness and near-death as a punishment for resisting God’s call. Perhaps it was… or perhaps it was just God’s way of reminding Jonah that he should not resist his vocation because the purpose of Jonah’s life and his role in the saving acts of God depended upon it. God called Jonah to a vocation of prophecy, but Jonah initially prefers a vocation of his own desires and resists the call of the Lord. Despite being saved from the belly of a giant fish, Jonah’s ways remain more important to Jonah than the Lord’s ways.

Resentment. At this point we join the story today in our first reading. Jonah begrudgingly has begun his prophetic mission of a three-day journey through Nineveh. Jonah is compliant to the Lord and he does what the Lord asks — but only out of a sense of duty and not with a zeal like that of Jeremiah or Amos. Jonah is angry with the Ninevites for the injustices and horrendous crimes that they have perpetrated against the innocent. This anger in and of itself is not sinful or destructive and at its source is in the service of justice. Saint Thomas Aquinas in referring to a thought attributed to Saint John Chrysostom writes, “The one that is angry without cause, shall be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked.”

Yet, God does not require anything more than the compliance of Jonah to bring about His desires that Nineveh repent and be spared. God permits what was previously thought of as impossible to happen. Jonah is successful in calling the Ninevites to repentance and deliverance. The king proclaims a fast, and not only do the people repent and turn away from their evil ways, the Ninevites also put their animals in sackcloth to demonstrate the complete repentance from their evil ways. So, the Lord relented and released the Ninevites from the punishment they deserved.

The story ends with Jonah being upset and angry with God’s mercy because he still resents the Ninevites and believes that they merit destruction. Jonah clings to resentment of the evil Ninevites and prefers being angry over rejoicing at their repentance as the Lord has desired. A quote from Saint Gregory the Great illustrates the problem with Jonah’s resentment, “We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it would overrule reason, and go in front of reason as its mistress, instead of following reason’s guidance, ever ready to obey it.” Despite his successful mission and compliance to God, Jonah’s ways remain more important to Jonah than the Lord’s ways.

Repentance. The first words recorded as spoken by Jesus in the entire Gospel of Mark are not “Love one another” or “Peace be with you.” The first words out of His mouth are those we heard today: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The call to repent precedes the call to discipleship given by Jesus to Simon Peter and Andrew, and to James and John.

Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave their business behind and to follow Him for the salvation of others. Jesus accomplishes as God and as man by His Passion, His Death, His three days in the tomb, and His Resurrection the defeat of sin and every grave evil — including the disordering of emotions as witnessed in Jonah’s resistance and resentment. Jesus is fully obedient and not simply compliant to the Father’s will — and the Father’s will is that all should be saved. God does not will the death of a sinner but that he be converted and live. Jesus gives Himself to the Apostles and in so doing teaches the Apostles His way, leading them and accompanying them to their repentance and conversion, a repentance for which Jesus has no need since He is without sin. Through the grace received in their Baptism, they learn to grow in the character of Jesus through the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and the infused moral virtues of Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice.

The call of Jesus to the Apostles to become “fishers of men” is answered by them and fulfilled by Christ through the Apostles’ repentance and their faithful witness to Christ’s love and truth in proclaiming and exemplifying repentance culminating in the acceptance of forgiveness and mercy. Sinners are ensnared through the truth and loving forgiveness that are the nets provided to the Apostles by Christ for their new mission. Most clearly this is witnessed through the forgiveness by these Apostles of those who persecute them, of those who mock them, of those who beat them — and for Peter, James, and Andrew — their forgiveness of those who kill them. God’s desires have become their desires through the grace afforded them through Christ. This is the way that Christ answers the prayer of Psalm 25 which we read today. This is the way that He teaches them His ways.

This week we mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision rendered by the United States Supreme Court in 1973. It is the shameful decision that legalized the grave evil of direct abortion resulting in the deaths of over 60 million unborn human beings. This decision subsequently has contributed to fragmentation in married and family life, subjugation of women, and a polarized political life and judicial system whereby fundamental human goods like gender and marriage are redesigned by an elite and dominating group detached ever further from human nature. It has contributed to a gradual erosion of respect for human life at other stages of development to a point that we now live in a culture where we attempt to resolve our social problems by killing people by abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, by war, and by a blind reliance upon the death penalty. It has led to confusion and violence.

It is right that we should feel anger in the face of such injustices. Such an experience of anger alerts us to injustice that requires correction and vindication to protect the vulnerable. Yet, the response prompted by our anger cannot be the irrational resentment of Jonah. Instead, we are baptized and confirmed and nurtured in the character of Christ who speaks the truth courageously in the face of error and lies and offers us a share in the cross through our own repentance and the proclamation of the Gospel by how we live even more than by what we say.

In our society and its current political and legal life, we see developed a system that is in many ways closed to the transcendence of God in part through the increasingly formal exclusion of religious practice from the public square. The false promises of “Big Tech” allure us to replace God’s ways with our whims, thereby enslaving us to the idolatry of self. The elite demands of gender ideology threaten to disfigure fluidly our human identity made in God’s image by His design of human nature. Christ calls us to speak the truth with confidence not arrogance, with justice not revenge, and with fidelity to the vocation He has given us — not the vocation we design for ourselves. Yet, if we resist God with our anger dominating our reason, we will replace one system closed to God with another system closed to God by reducing the Gospel to just another ideology without prayer and reference to Christ. This would result only in our preferred resentment instead of the redemption by Divine Justice offered and brought about by God through our repentance and conversion. Christ makes all the difference. Christ has won the battle, we share in the victory to the extent that we pray to Him, obey Him, and love Him. So, we pray today with confidence the Psalm that the Lord Himself has given us: “Teach me your ways, Oh Lord.”

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