“That all may be one…” Third Sunday in Ordinary Time — Conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — January 25, 2015
Many years ago, back in the 1950s, I was puzzled and confused by the lyrics of a song from a Broadway musical that was popular at the time. The show, written by George and Ira Gershwin, was Porgy and Bess, and the title of the song was It Ain’t Necessarily So. What upset me about the words of the song was that it began: “It ain’t necessarily so. It ain’t necessarily so. The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so!” And it wasn’t just the incorrect grammar that upset me.
One of several examples mentioned in the song was the Old Testament prophet Jonah. “Oh, Jonah he lived in the whale. Oh, Jonah he lived in the whale. For he made his home in that fish’s abdomen. Oh, Jonah he lived in the whale.” And then that refrain: “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so!”
Many years later, in a Scripture class while I was in college, I learned that there is perhaps more truth to that song than I was ready to understand and accept as a elementary school student. After all, the Bible is the Bible, the inspired Word of God, and whatever the Bible says must be true. But within the Bible, there are many different types of literature — prose and poetry, myth and history, for example — so in a way, it is correct to say: The things you are liable to read in the Bible are not necessarily true in a strictly literal sense.
In that Scripture class, I learned that the Book of Jonah, which provides the first reading this Sunday, is technically classified as “didactic fiction.” The Book of Jonah is not, then, strictly speaking, one of the historical books of the Bible. And, in fact, the Book of Jonah is different from all the books of the other prophets in the Old Testament.
Historians and archaeologists tell us that neither Jonah nor the city of Nineveh really existed at the time and in the way this story is told. So the Scripture scholars classify the Book of Jonah as “didactic fiction,” a fictional story told to teach a theological truth.
Actually, this reading from the Book of Jonah, teaches us several important theological truths about prophecy, about repentance, and about salvation. And along with today’s reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel, our readings also teach us about vocation: about how God calls each and every one of us to repentance, to faith, and to service to others.
The first lesson that the example of the Prophet Jonah teaches us is that there is no escaping God’s call in our lives. The Book of Jonah is divided into three parts: (I) Part One tells about Jonah’s attempts to escape his vocation; (2) Part Two tells of Jonah’s success in calling the people of Nineveh to repentance; and (3) Part Three tells of Jonah’s unusual reaction to his unexpected success.
At first, Jonah tried everything he could to get out of going off to Nineveh to call those good-for-nothing pagans to repentance as God had asked him to. So he ended up inside that whale. Earlier, Jonah had boarded a ship headed for Spain, with the hope of completely escaping his mission to the Ninevites. But when that ship was nearly wrecked in a terrible storm, the sailors figured out that it was all Jonah’s fault, because he was trying to escape God’s call in his life. So they threw him overboard, and as soon as they did, the storm settled down and their ship was saved. But then Jonah was swallowed up by the whale, so that three days later he would be spit out, right there on the shores of Nineveh, just where he had some important work to do for God.
So the first lesson we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale is that when God has a job for us to do, there is no escaping! Don’t even try to get out of it!
The lesson of Part Two of the Jonah story is that when we finally do accept God’s invitation to do something, we should get ready to be surprised by our unexpected success! Jonah was sure that he would be laughed at and rejected, if not brutally beaten and killed, in response to his efforts to call the Ninevites to repentance. No one likes to be told that what they are doing is wrong, certainly not those pagans in Nineveh. So Jonah felt that his mission was doomed to failure. But somehow, by the grace of God, the Ninevites took Jonah’s warning to heart. They believed Jonah’s message; they proclaimed a fast, and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. As a result, God changed his mind, and did not destroy Nineveh as he had threatened. And Jonah was evidently more surprised than anyone!
So, too, we should get ready to be surprised by our success when we accept God’s invitation to do what God asks us to do on God’s behalf. That’s the second lesson that we learn from Jonah’s example: Prepare for unexpected results!
Now, you would think that Jonah’s successful mission to the Ninevites would make him feel very happy, and maybe even eager for another opportunity to go off to some other pagan land to call more sinners to repentance. But NO! Jonah was angry and upset with God for NOT destroying Nineveh as God had threatened. And this is what the Scripture scholars tell us was the main point that the Book of Jonah was written to teach the Chosen People of Israel: God really wants all people to be saved!
God wants to save not only the Jews, but all people, even those good-for-nothing pagans and sinners whom Jonah went to warn in Nineveh.
So the third message from the Book of Jonah is that God really does want to save all people, not just the Jews, not just Christians and Catholics, but all people! And our response to this truth should be our own desire to do whatever we can to help God reach out to sinners in order to call them to repentance and to faith.
Here is where today’s Gospel comes in, inviting us to follow the example of those fishermen, Simon and Andrew, and James and John, in responding immediately and wholeheartedly to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, in order to become “fishers of men.” The contrast between Jonah’s response to his vocation and the response made in today’s Gospel by those first four apostles couldn’t be greater! “…Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.” We hope and pray that each and every one of us will respond to God’s call in our lives, just like those first four disciples responded to Jesus’ invitation to leave their fishing nets behind, to become fishers of men.
As we celebrate the Eucharist this weekend, then, let us take to heart the theological truths that the Book of Jonah was written to teach us:
1) We can never escape God’s call or our vocation in life. So if God is calling you to do something, don’t try to escape it, just do it!
2) When we accept God’s call or our vocation in life, get ready to be surprised by the results. So if you’re expecting success, get ready for failure. And if you’re expecting failure, get ready for success. Because God has a way of surprising us, just when we think we have everything figured out and under control.
3) Accept the fact that change is possible. Pagans and sinners can repent and become believers. And when we see this happening, when we see sinners repenting and becoming believers, we should not become angry, upset or resentful, because somehow pagans and sinners are getting in on what God first promised us. Rather, we should rejoice and be glad, because with God’s grace, more people are coming to salvation. And it truly is God’s will to save ALL PEOPLE.
This weekend, we conclude the Church’s annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As Catholics, we join with Christians of all denominations from all parts of the world, in praying for Christian unity. And as we do, we should call to mind Jesus’ own prayer at the Last Supper: “That all may be one , as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be [one] in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
In that prayer, Jesus expressed his hope that the unity reflected in the lives of his followers would be a major factor in bringing the whole world to faith in him as their Lord and Savior. Let us pray that Jesus’ own prayer for unity will be answered. May we truly become more united in our faith as Catholics, and as Christians of so many different denominations, so that the theological truths, which together we believe and profess, will be more effective in uniting us, and so that the differences and disagreements among us will be no longer divide us. Let us pray with Jesus: “That WE may be ONE.” And may the Father answer our prayer, by making us ONE with the Lord Jesus, and ONE with one another, in the Eucharist that we share as Catholics, and in a greater sense of fellowship and love among all Christians who have accepted the Lord’s invitation: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Fr. Richard Duncanson