A reflection on the readings of January 21, 2024 — The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and the Sunday of the Word of God)

The Book of Jonah is an odd little story, four short chapters that barely take up two pages in my Bible.  He was perhaps the most reluctant of the prophets – God told him to go to Ninevah and he promptly boarded a ship going in the exact opposite direction!  It takes a terrible storm, getting thrown overboard, and spending three days in the belly of a great fish for him to finally come around to cooperating.

Oddly enough, this most reluctant of prophets could be said to be the most effective of prophets.  In less than a day, he has spread God’s message across a huge city and everyone from the king on down repents.  Not bad for a day’s work, but what’s even more amazing is that the Ninevites were pagans and enemies of Israel.

But here’s the thing – Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to listen to him.  He was looking forward to God destroying the city and its 120,000-plus occupants.  So when Ninevah repents and God relents, Jonah gets angry and says to the Lord “I knew it!  I knew you were going to be gracious and merciful to them!  That’s why I didn’t want to come!”  With that, Jonah secures his place as likely the most conflicted of prophets, too.

The bearer of the urgent message to repent was the only one who didn’t repent.  The story ends there, with Jonah stewing in his own juices, mad at God and mad at the world.  Who knows — perhaps over time Jonah managed to get over himself.

The need to respond with urgency carries through to the second reading and the Gospel.  When Jesus says “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand,” we tend to think he is talking in “soon but not yet” sorts of terms if we equate the kingdom of God with Heaven.  But Jesus speaks of the time of fulfillment as being in this very moment and the kingdom of God as being right here, right now.  It is immediacy that demands a response, and Jesus spells out what that response needs be if we’re to part of this kingdom – repent and believe in the Gospel.

It’s been pointed out that our word “repent” lacks the full meaning of the original Greek word “metanoia.”  “Repent” can come across as “stop doing bad stuff,” while “metanoia” is far more radical.  “Meta” means transcend, and “nous” means mind.  Jesus is challenging us to pass beyond our ingrained ways of thinking and to see ourselves and others through his eyes, to see ourselves and others as members of a kingdom that transcends the physical world around us.  And with the challenge to a new way of thinking, he gives us the ultimate guide to navigating this new world – the Gospel or, more precisely, belief in the Gospel.

To believe in the Gospel, the Good News, is to allow ourselves to be formed and changed by the Incarnate Word himself, Jesus Christ.  To believe in the Gospel is an exercise in trust, trust that God’s ways and God’s will are always going to be far better than anything we can come up with on our own.

To be familiar with God’s word is important, but it’s even more important to let ourselves be changed by it.  Going back to Jonah, he rails at God with the words “I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment,” which clearly demonstrates his familiarity with God’s ways.  But his contempt for the Ninevites and refusal to let God’s way of thinking take precedence over his own ingrained way of thinking was a refusal of metanoia.  Jonah remained unchanged.

The call to repent and believe in the Gospel is a “now” thing, not an “I’ll focus on it when I have more time” thing.  As St. Paul warns in the 2nd reading, “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.”  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quite blunt on this point.  “And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”  But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”  To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Simon, Andrew, James, and John in today’s Gospel clearly sense the immediacy of Jesus’ call and show no regard for the world they’re leaving behind in favor of the kingdom of God.  Upon Jesus’ invitation, both sets of brothers immediately drop their nets and don’t look back.  This doesn’t mean that we should all quit our jobs or drop out of school in order to become missionaries, but we can see in this a call to reflect on the things we may be putting between ourselves and God.  What are the nets that I’m mending that I need to put aside?

Certainly we should leave habitual sin behind, but there may be objectively neutral or even good things that we can be overly attached to or distracted by that prevent us from fully hearing and living out the Good News.  Where does my relationship with Jesus Christ stack up on my list of priorities?

In his 2019 Apostolic Letter Aperuit illis, Pope Francis writes, “I hereby declare that the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God.”  The 3rd Sunday works out well as the “Sunday of the Word of God” because in all three cycles of readings, the Gospels relate Jesus beginning his public ministry following his Baptism in the Jordan by John.

Jesus starts his work of redemption by calling disciples to his side, where they can be formed and transformed by the Good News.  He makes that same invitation to each of us every day, but most profoundly in the Celebration of the Mass as he comes among us to feed us at the table of his Word and his Body.  This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.  May we see this day and every day as an opportunity to repent and believe in the Gospel.

Image: “Jonah” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by jimforest (Flickr).

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Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland.  After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government.  Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.

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