Scripture notes – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary time – Year B – 21st January 2024

We have several years of seemingly endless ‘bad news’ with a pandemic, economic downturns, and war. But the Good News Jesus announces in the Gospel today, is of a different level altogether.

The readings are available online here.

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. The book of Jonah has important lessons about mercy, revenge, and the role of prophecy. I recommend reading it all. Forget the ‘whale’ 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. 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 an ‘but if’ or ‘unless’ as we hear of Nineveh. 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 may sound as if they do not 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. 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 need to turn back to God.

Psalm 24:4-9
This 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! There are many apocalyptic warnings in our own time, but often based on environmental catastrophes. However, we can still profit from the advice: not setting our hearts, or focusing all our concerns, on the pleasures of this world. We can look for the values of God’s domain – sharing, helping others, rather than self-seeking or worrying about our problems. The idea of something new being ‘at hand’ leads into the opening proclamation of Jesus in the Gospel.

Mark 1:14-20
No details are given about John’s arrest here, but Mark will later give us a lively account (6:14-29). The Greek word means ‘be handed over’ an idea which makes less sense about John’s arrest but will be part of the Passion account of Jesus capture, and so is a hint of what is to come. The emphasis is first on Jesus, and secondly on the message which is given importance by its repetition. Modern Bibles generally go for Good News – the older term ‘gospel’ had that meaning in Anglo-Saxon and entered our language from that. We have of course adopted ‘gospel’ as the name for the first 4 books of the New Testament. Each of those four will spell out in their own ways what Jesus’ ‘good news’ means for the world and for each of us personally. For Mark, there are no further words from Jesus now, and he will report far less of his teaching, but focus on what the Lord does. In a way for Mark, Jesus himself is the ‘Good News’.

‘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 sometimes say, ‘The hour has come!’ It is something long awaited, and also what John had been foretelling, is happening right now. The Greek word [metanoeite] our liturgy translates as ‘repent’ means literally ‘change your mind’. It means not just regretting anything wrong we may have done, but finding a change of direction. The call is to have a new way of thinking about God and the world. As the Gospel continues, we will hear what this change means for how we live and act.

Another word to be explained is the Greek word most often translated ‘believe’ but has overtones of ‘trust in’. It is not simply a mental assent to truth, but the full acceptance of the power of God’s love. The traditional translation of ‘kingdom’ for the Greek word I think does not fit our time, but it is hard to find a good substitute. Some suggestions are Dominion of God, Reign or Sovereignty. The Greek word emphasizes not the geographic location 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 rule is of a very different kind.

Last week we heard John’s account of the first disciples in relation to John the Baptist; Mark’s emphasis is different as he shows they are called to be helpers. What John and Mark share is that from the very beginning Jesus formed a community, calling people not just to listen to him, but have a share in his life and mission. Mark is unconcerned with how much the four already knew of Jesus before he walked past their boats, his point is showing their instant response. Mark loves the Greek word translated ‘immediately’, sometimes it seems just a way of connecting actions, but here it really fits. They don’t pause to make any arrangements, but walk off then and there with Jesus.

There is an example of Jesus’ humour 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. Other disciples will be mentioned 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. Showing them there at the important moments is a way of indicating the reliability of the traditions the evangelists will write down. (Compare what Luke says in Acts 1:21-22.)

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection
The first reading shows Jonah responding to God’s call, and urging people to repent; followed by Jesus calling the disciples and calling on people to repent – and believe the Good News. The first reading makes clear that God has compassion for those who do.

    • What is the Good News that you need from God in your life now, or this year?
    • What ‘turn’, change, new direction does it need from you?
    • And what help from God do you need?