3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s one of those serendipities of the liturgical reading cycle that we hear today the story of the calling of the prophet Jonah and the first apostles, since yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my ordination. And while I am no way in the same league as a prophet or an apostle, it has caused me to reflect on my experiences the past eleven years and see some similarities.
I often wonder at the power of Jesus’ word and presence when people encountered him in their daily lives. How magnetic and disruptive his personality must have been. He had enormous influence in order to shake people from their former lives in such a short period of time. I guess that’s why we describe people with magnetic personalities as being charismatic today.
What was it about that moment in the apostles’ lives that caused them to leave their families and friends and their livelihoods in order to follow someone just because he called them to? We don’t know if the apostles had met or heard about Jesus before that day. Perhaps they knew him by reputation. Perhaps he had spoken to them before and it was finally time for them to act. Remember that Jesus himself had to be prodded into his public ministry by his own mother at the wedding feast at Cana. Maybe Jesus had been preparing Andrew, Peter, James and John for a while before calling them to leave that day.
Isn’t that more plausible? Isn’t that more in keeping with our own experiences? I know it is with mine. I don’t believe in love at first sight. Falling in love is a process, whether it is with God or with one another. There is an initial attraction, whether physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. Then there is a period of self-revelation with that person, where we get to know one another. With that slow revelation we come to understand what we’re all about, and the revelation gets deeper and more personal. Out of that understanding comes trust, and only with trust can love blossom.
I can see that happening with the apostles. They were men searching for something. Like most Jews of the first century, they were looking for a messiah. Actively looking. Maybe they had checked out other charismatic personalities who were wandering around Galilee. We know from the scriptures that there were many such messiahs popping up and disappearing around that time. Maybe they were disciples of John the Baptist. The gospel of John says they were. And we know that Jesus also followed John around the Jordan. Maybe the apostles had met and gotten to know Jesus there, in community with other searchers.
That’s what happened to me. I am a cradle to grave Catholic; some have called me TurboCatholic. And my love for Jesus did not come about from some earth shattering event or revelation, like with St. Paul. No, just as Peter was led to Jesus by his brother, I was led to Jesus by my dad. I gained knowledge of Jesus throughout my sixteen years in Catholic schools, but I didn’t fall in love with Jesus through study. I was attracted to the Jesus my father knew and loved. Dad never had a lot of book learning, he had a personal relationship with Jesus. And I wanted that same relationship.
You see, you can know everything about a person and not love them. A lot of folks go to bible studies and retreats and study everything they can find about Jesus, but never really fall in love with him. Unless you have a personal experience of the risen Lord, just as the apostles did, you can never truly grow to love him.
Now don’t get me wrong, the way to find Jesus, know him and then love him is often through bible study, retreats, and the sacraments, and that’s why we do them. But there will always come that moment when you have to make the decision to follow him. There will always come that time when you have to choose to switch your focus off your family and friends, your job and your interests and onto being a disciple. Some people will actually be called to leave all those things and enter a life of service as a priest, religious, activist or whatever. But most of us won’t. Most of us will just make the mental and spiritual switch. And I think that’s often harder to live than if we just left everything and entered a monastery.
Remember the story of the rich young man? He asked Jesus what he had to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, and the man said he always had. Then Jesus asked him to make that choice to switch his focus from his life of possessions and onto Jesus. And the man went away dejected because that was just too much to ask. He hadn’t had time to fall in love with Jesus yet. Perhaps later on he did, but we cannot know.
Whether it was spur of the moment or the result of time, at one point the apostles had to choose whether or not to follow Jesus. At a specific point in time Jesus called them to act. Preparation time was over. Time to get a move on.
As a deacon I’m often caught in the middle. I’m neither fish nor fowl. I am clergy but I exercise my ministry in the world and the marketplace. A priest is a priest, and maybe a son and a friend. I am husband and father, friend and brother, businessman and deacon. Like you, I struggle to keep my priorities straight. I have to constantly remind myself that a deacon is what I am, not what I do. I am supposed to be servant, and that service extends to my roles as husband and father, friend and brother and businessman. And my wife and children, friends and sister all know that I never live up to being servant, and never will.
I can really relate to poor Jonah in today’s first reading. We get the middle of the story here, but need to know the beginning and the end. Jonah was called by God to be a prophet, and he really didn’t want to. In fact, he told God no and then ran away and hid. You see, God wanted Jonah to go to the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, and tell them that God was going to destroy them all in three days. That’s all. He didn’t have to preach to them or try to convert them. All he had to do was tell them they were going to all be killed. And Jonah didn’t think that was fair. And he was scared.
The Assyrians were one of the most barbarous and brutal civilizations the world has ever known. The Assyrian empire had conquered virtually all the Middle East, and they treated the conquered people horribly. They wiped out the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried thousands of people off to slavery. It’s understandable that Jonah hated the Assyrians and feared what they would do to him if he was caught yelling in the streets.
Jonah didn’t want to warn the Assyrians. He wanted them to all die. And he didn’t want to die trying. So he ran away from his calling. You know the story. He was swallowed by the big fish, was belched up on the beach, and finally got to walking through Ninevah with his message of destruction. And you know what? They all repented. They all gave up their evil ways and God chose not to destroy them. And this made Jonah even angrier, so angry that he asked God to kill him there and then. God’s sense of justice just didn’t make sense, and it just wasn’t fair.
Now, I don’t ever want God to destroy my enemies, but maybe he could chastise them a little sometimes. Like Jonah, there are some people I don’t think deserve mercy. They’ve hurt me and they deserve to be hurt in return. There have been many times when I have wanted to or tried to run away. Sometimes I just don’t want to go do that hospital visit or make that phone call to the chronic complainer. Sometimes I see the evil and indifference in the world and just want to give up a losing battle. Sometimes I am so frustrated that people just don’t get it.
And that’s when I have to stop, take a deep breath, and try to remember why I’m doing this in the first place. I have to remember who I’m doing this for. I have to strip away all the rules and regulations, pressures and responsibilities, and focus on my love for Jesus. More so, I need to focus on his love for me. I need to experience Jesus in my life personally. I have to feel Jesus. I have to have an emotional response. I have to remember all the times I have experienced the loving hand of God in my life and in the lives of those I serve.
And I have to pray.
I have witnessed some amazing things, some deeply personal conversions in peoples’ lives, the past eleven years. I have to remember them and let them humble me. And it is humbling to see how God’s ways are not my ways, his idea of justice is not the same as mine, and his mercy always triumphs over judgment. Because if God can relent in punishing the Assyrians, if Jesus can forgive the betrayal of his closest friends, then what does God have in store for you and me, servants just trying to get along in the world?