‘Repentance’ or ‘change of direction’ is a theme of today’s mass, as Mark reports the first words of Jesus’ ministry. Other significant words are ‘good news’ and ‘believe/trust’.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
This short selection from one of the shortest books of the Old Testament fits the words of the Gospel, with a stress on God’s eagerness to forgive. It does not, however, do justice to the book of Jonah which has important lessons about mercy, revenge, and the role of prophecy. The book takes only two pages in the Bible and I recommend reading it all. Forget the ‘whale’ (better translated ‘a great fish’ which God specially prepares) who is so popular in children’s books, and any concerns about the historical details. This is rather a carefully constructed fiction for adults that has a message which will be reflected in Jesus’ teaching. It is skilfully presented – the unknown author is a master of both literature and theological insight. In short space, he creates lively characters – God in Jonah is a sort of ‘character’ too, acting and speaking like a human. The author clearly sees this as the best way to present a deity who is beyond our human words. He uses some obvious humour and a subtle irony – and then hits the reader with two important points.
The first lesson is the nature of this God who is in very essence loving and forgiving. Jonah 4:2 quotes a frequent Old Testament description, ‘a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil.’ Secondly, we learn something of the nature of prophetic messages of warning or threatened punishment. They always have a ‘but if’ or ‘unless’ – allowing for the response of repentance and change of heart and direction which open the sinner to God’s love. There are many prophetic condemnation and warnings of punishment in the Old Testament, and we will also find them from Jesus in the Gospels. These can be upsetting as they do not seem to fit with a loving Father and compassionate Saviour until we understand they are meant to lead to repentance and reconciliation
Jonah’s great failure is his refusal to be as forgiving and loving as God. The same desire to see the wicked punished or destroyed (and ourselves justified) is common today. Thus the book calls us to examine our own hearts as well, to check whether we pray for sinners to repent rather than condemned, and also offer our forgiveness.
At the end of the story God is as tender and forgiving to Jonah as to the sinners of Nineveh. This tells us we will find the same when we turn to God.
This is one of the nine acrostic psalms, starting each verse with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, of course lost in English. The whole psalm seems written from the viewpoint of one who is aware of having ‘strayed’ and now asking God for help in walking on the right path. It expresses great confidence in God’s loving kindness and forgiveness, and thus fits well with the story in Jonah, and the call of Jesus in the Gospel.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Paul and the Corinthians expected that Jesus was returning in the immediate future to fully establish his Kingdom, and this advice is coloured by that expectation. No sense in putting all emphasis on the present when it is to end so soon! We of course no longer have that expectation, but we can still profit from the advice: not setting our hearts, or focusing all our concerns, on the things of this world. We can look for the values of the Kingdom – sharing, helping others, rather than self-seeking or worrying about our problems. The sense of the Kingdom of God being at hand leads into the opening proclamation of Jesus in the Gospel.
No details are given about John’s arrest here, but Mark will later give us a lively account (6:14-29). The Greek word is ‘been handed over’ which makes less sense about John’s arrest but will be part of the Passion account of Jesus capture, and is a hint of what is to come. The emphasis is first on Jesus, and secondly on the ‘Good News’ which is given importance by its repetition. Modern Bibles generally go for Good News – the older term ‘gospel’ had that meaning in Anglo-Saxon. We have of course adopted ‘gospel’ for the first 4 books of the New Testament. Each of the four will spell out what Jesus ‘good news’ means for the world and for each of us personally.
‘Proclaiming’ is more formal than daily speech, and makes the call more solemn. It would mean a public announcement which would have been in person in those days without newspapers, radio and TV where we get our (often bad) news.
There is a sense of urgency in the Greek about the ‘time’ as the Greek word has the meaning of a special expected moment. In our speech, we say, ‘The hour has come!’ It is something long awaited, and also what John had been foretelling is happening right now. Another word to be explained is the Greek word most often translated ‘believe’ but has overtones of ‘trust in’. It is not a mental assent to truth, but the full acceptance of God’s love.
The traditional translation of ‘kingdom’ for the Greek word does not seem accurate for our times, but it is hard to find a good substitute. Some suggestions are Dominion of God, Reign or Sovereignty. The Greek emphasizes not so much the geographic location as our ‘United Kingdom’, but relates to the power and authority of the ruler. The people hearing Jesus’ message were very aware of being under the often oppressive power of the Roman Empire, so Jesus will stress that God’s domain is of a very different kind.
Last week we heard John’s account of the first disciples; Mark’s emphasis is different. What John and Mark share is that from the very beginning Jesus formed a community, calling people not just to listen him, but share in his life and mission. Mark is unconcerned with how much the four already knew of Jesus, his point is one of instant response. (Mark loves the word translated ‘immediately’, sometimes used just connecting action, but here it really fits.) There is an example of the humour of Jesus in naming them ‘fishers of people’, relating their new way of life to their past. Mark is often brief, yet offers vivid details like Zebedee being left in the boat with hired helpers.
Others will be called later, but these four, especially Simon Peter, James and John, will be shown in the Gospel as the most intimate, most trusted of the disciples.