The 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25: 4-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 7:29-31
Gospel: According to St. Mark 1:14-20
The term vocation derives, like so many English words, from the Latin. The Latin word vocare means “to call,” and contains the same root as vox, Latin for “voice.” Throughout the Old Testament there is a constant stream of stories describing the voice of God calling out to various individuals who are being offered the vocation of prophet. One such individual is Jonah.
The tale of this wayward prophet is most certainly fictional and its purpose is the same as that of the parables of Jesus, with a bit of satire thrown in for good measure. This weekend’s selection is misleading if one is not familiar with the beginning of the story, since the prophetic call with which the reading opens is not the first time that Jonah heard the voice of God.
This Old Testament book opens with Jonah being called, just as he is here, to preach to the wicked folks in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria and the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq. Jonah, none-too-pleased with the call to make his way to the unfriendly neighbors of the Israelites, hightails it in the opposite direction and boards a ship heading for Tarshish in the West.
By the time we pick up the story in this weekend’s reading, Jonah has already been thrown overboard by the frightened sailors who figure out that the terrible storms on the sea are due to Jonah’s disobedience to God’s call. In addition, he has then been swallowed up by a “great fish” and, after a journey of three days and three nights, “the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land” right back where he started.
So, as the story begins in this weekend’s liturgy, God is again offering Jonah the opportunity to visit Nineveh and exercise his prophetic ministry. Unwilling to test the Lord’s patience a second time, Jonah submits and delivers God’s message to the repentant inhabitants of Nineveh who are thus spared the Lord’s wrath.
The reluctant prophet fumes at the contrition of the Ninevites and the mercy of God, having hoped that either the Ninevites would ignore his prophecies of doom or the Lord would destroy them no matter how they responded to his message. For those of us who have the benefit of both Testaments, this story takes on great personal significance since we are the modern equivalent of the ancient Ninevites – we are non-Jews and we are sinners. Through the mercy and grace of God, the mission of Jesus’ Apostles extends beyond the confines of the original Chosen People, just as did the mission of Jonah.
The full scope of Jonah’s reluctant response to God’s call is seen most clearly in the Gospel passage from St. Mark where Simon, Andrew, James, and John drop their nets and walk away from their boats at the prospect of becoming disciples of Jesus and “fishers of men.” The Apostles’ obedience to their vocation is in complete contrast to the stubborn and willful Jonah.
The call from the voice of God can be followed or it can be ignored, and this weekend’s readings let us know that we are free to respond or not. But they also let us know that God is persistent, and that the phone of vocation will continue to ring again and again and again if we don’t pick it up. The Apostles, unlike Jonah, were quick to answer the call and follow Jesus, not even giving a second thought to walking away from their families and livelihoods.
Their response is impressive for its complete trust in the One who called. Either that, or the memory of the story of Jonah helped them to realize that neither the call nor the Caller will go away, and that it is better to answer now rather than to spend the next 72 hours inside a big fish.