A reflection on the Sunday readings for January 24, 2021 — the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
In normal circumstances, writing a homily or reflection based on the call of Jonah or the call of Andrew, Simon, James, and John would not be a very difficult task. But we are not living in normal times, are we?
The United States is only a few days into the administration of a new president, and the days leading up to it were marked by uncertainty, violence, and death. Immaterial of our diverse political loyalties, I can only hope that healing will begin after the inauguration. My focus today is not on politics, however, but on discernment. Specifically, I would like to speak about how we can genuinely discern God’s call. We can look at the political turmoil in our nation. How many Christians considered their political activism to be divinely ordained? Many even resorted to violence, believing that they were carrying out a divine mandate. Many Christians claimed that they were answering a divine call. Were they right? Were they wrong?
In today’s first reading, God calls Jonah to do an important task. In the Gospel reading, Jesus calls his first four disciples. Jonah’s initial resistance and reluctance to do the task that God entrusted to him—contrasted with the unhesitating willingness of Andrew, Simon, James, and John—are consistent with the struggles we often have in discerning God’s call and finally to accomplish it. How do we genuinely discern God’s call? How do we separate God’s call from our own whims and desires?
We might say that this is inauguration week, both on the political and Gospel fronts. Today’s narrative from Mark’s Gospel recounts the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. Mark’s focus is on two realities: “the Gospel of God” and the “Kingdom of God.” Mark states that, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God” (1:14). The Gospel (or the ‘good news’) of God was simply this: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). While in hindsight we know that Jesus is himself the Gospel/good news of God, and that Jesus is himself the personification of the kingdom of God, Mark seems to suggest that Jesus was at the service of a greater cause than himself. The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel was at the service of Gospel of the kingdom of God. Even though Jesus was the Son of Man, he did not come into the world for his own sake. Rather, he came into the world to proclaim the dawn of God’s kingdom. Henceforth, Jesus would focus not on himself but on advancing the reign of God. The good news of the kingdom of God would consume him.
How does this relate to our own discernment of God’s call and accomplishing God’s will in our own lives? Mark provides us with this very clear thought: first and foremost, our motivation in discerning God’s call must be focused on the kingdom of God. Discerning God’s call is not primarily about me. It can be hard to accept this reality, especially in a culture that lays great emphasis on personal identity, freedom, and self-fulfillment. Certainly, self-knowledge and self-realization are very important, but the starting point is the kingdom of God.
The first step in discerning God’s call is to understand the reality of the kingdom of God and all that it entails. Could this the be reason that in today’s Gospel reading Andrew, Peter, James, and John left their nets and followed Jesus without hesitating? They left themselves behind and first followed him who came proclaiming the kingdom of God. They understood themselves in light of the kingdom of God. If this is something we can replicate in our own lives, then God can accomplish God’s will through us in the same way that God accomplished it though Jonah, Andrew, Simon, James and John.
Who is Called?
In the broadest sense, everybody is called, each according to God’s purpose. In other words, God calls whomever God wills. Scripture presents any number of call stories wherein the call came to a range of people. In last week’s first reading God called Samuel who was barely twelve years old (1 Sam 3:3-19). God called even rebels like Jonah. God instructed him to go to Nineveh, but he took a ship to Tarshish (Jn 1:3). Yet God called him a second time to accomplish God’s task. (Jn 3:1). In today’s gospel reading, Jesus called Andrew, Peter, James and John who were ordinary folks going about their normal routine and mundane lives. Among Jesus’ apostles were fisherfolk, a tax-collector, and even one who would ultimately let him down.
Isn’t it true that many of us feel very ordinary, often part of a large, nameless crowd? Many of us get tired of our ordinary lives, the same mundane routines and often our robotic existence. I can certainly connect with the rebellious Jonah because sometimes I too am tempted to move in the opposite direction God would have me go. I can also connect with Andrew, Simon, James, and John because often I feel I too am just another guy. And for you too, perhaps the daily routine can get cumbersome—work, relationships, marriage, family, school, homework, eat, sleep, wake up—and then, do the same thing all over again. What is the good news in all of this? The good news is this—that it is people like us that Jesus called. In a very real sense, even though not one person can claim to be worthy of God’s call, God calls ordinary folks like you and me and makes us worthy. We are called.
God’s Call: Discerning Genuine from False
I still have not addressed the most important question of all: How do I separate God’s call and will from my own whims and desires? How do we evaluate, for example, whether certain types of political activism are a divine call? Based on today’s scripture we can safely propose a few criteria. First, as I mentioned earlier, God’s call is not for our own sake. God does not call us because we are rich, powerful, famous, good-looking, or so that we many become any of the above. God’s call is always at the service of kingdom of God.
Second, as Mark recounts about Jesus (Mk 1:14), God’s call always has a razor-sharp focus on the Gospel of the kingdom of God. In this regard, the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12) are the key virtues of the kingdom of God. Jesus personified the kingdom of God by perfectly living out the Beatitudes. He would teach his disciples to do the same. The lives of those who say they are following God’s will must necessarily reflect poverty of spirit, meekness, and mercy. They must be able mourn with those who mourn, be peacemakers, hunger and thirst for righteousness, and be clean of heart. This is the test of genuine discipleship.
Third, even though Jesus’ own people were under Roman rule, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry was not about gaining temporal power or exercising racial and cultural superiority. Rather, he was focused on God’s kingdom. God never calls someone so that he or she may wield temporal power for its own sake, or so that one race may dominate another. Even if God calls people to bring about temporal change, that change must ultimately help to build the kingdom of God.
Finally, Jesus began his ministry, not with a band of soldiers trained in the art of war, but with ordinary people who he trained in the art of love and in working for the common good. So while I am certain that those who launched the violent riot on Capitol Hill in God’s name and claimed to be answering God’s call, they clearly misunderstood Christ, the good news he preached, and the kingdom of God that he inaugurated. The violence they unleashed is evidence enough!
Every Eucharist elevates us from being ordinary people to those who are called to be members of the body of Christ. We are called to be the real presence of Christ in the world, bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. Let us leave our nets behind and answer the call.
Image: Vocazione deifigli di Zebedeo By Marco Basaiti, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54512847