January 22, 2012 - Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

It is remarkable that the people of Nineveh listened to the call of Jonah, so remarkable that it is unbelievable. Nineveh was a terrible city. It certainly is in competition for the worst city in the history of the world. Every record we have from that time tells us that Nineveh was a city of cruel and violent people. The idea that a prophet would be successful walking through Nineveh shouting out that the city is about to be destroyed because of the sinfulness of the inhabitants is difficult to imagine. What if someone walked into our city and started shouting that the city would be destroyed? Who would believe them? It is more likely that Jonah would be mocked, thought of as a crazy person, beaten, and killed. Instead the whole city, from the lowliest peasant to the great king, repented of their sins in sackcloth and ashes.

We have no other record of such a repentance ever happening in Nineveh. From being built in 700 BC to its destruction in 612 BC, Nineveh was consistently bad. So if this repentance really did occur, it must have been very short-lived. Yet let us allow it to be as short-lived as possible, or even to simply be a parable about what would have happened if they had repented, the lesson for us is the same. The worst people in the whole world, if they would repent from their sins, would be forgiven. The Ninevites heard the call of Jonah, and they repented.

Our gospel has a similar theme. Andrew, Peter, James, and John were busy. They were fishing. Jesus comes to them and calls them. “Come and follow me”, says Jesus. They hear the will of God, not in a mysterious way, but clearly, in their own language. Just like the Ninevites, they heard a call and they responded immediately, and we know that this is true history and not just a parable. Other people might have told Jesus that they were busy, but these four were ready when they heard the call to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

It is relatively common to be looking for a sign from God, but it seems like it is rare to receive one. It would be easier if signs were more a dime a dozen, if every time we turned around God was announcing his will to us. This whole life would be more black-and-white, simpler. It would be obvious whether we were following God's will. Yet for some reason this is not how God chooses to reveal his will in the world. It is only on rare occasions that a prophet walks through town threatening destruction unless we repent. It was only once in the history of the world that Jesus walked along the shore of Galilee calling disciples.

But if we did hear his call, are we ready to respond? Since these explicit signs are so rare, we need to be ready should one ever come along. But of course we do have the call of God constantly before us. The call of God is recorded in Scripture, and we read Scripture at Mass every day. The words of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, are here before us today. St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians, “Let those using the world act as not using it fully”, applies equally to us.

St. Paul's words seem as if they do not apply because it seems that he was mistaken. His entire instruction is predicated on the first line: “I tell you brothers and sisters the time is running out.” It seems that St. Paul believed that the end of the world would arrive during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. Two thousand years later, he seems to have been proven wrong. Yet he is not wrong. No matter how much time is left, the time is running out. When you attend a basketball game it is as true to say that the time is running out one minute into the game as it is with one minute left. Time is always running out because we are always approaching the end.

But why is it that this state of affairs should cause us to separate ourselves from the world? It is because there is something wrong with the world. This world is filled with violence and selfishness, pornography and gluttony. This world is broken. If the world were better, we would not need to separate ourselves from it, but since the world is broken it is a dangerous place to put our hope and time is running out.

What is wrong with the world? I am. I and you and every fallen human being on earth is the problem with the world. It would be easier to obey God, I think, if he always gave commandments; if he would simply give guidance in my everyday life, yet I do not even obey the few commandments that I have. Where does all the selfishness in the world, the violence in the world, the problems of the world come from? From the people of the world, and their failure to obey the commands of God.

How remarkable it is then that Jesus chose for fallen human beings to be his apostles, to pass on the Gospel that can save us from ourselves! He knew as he chose the apostles that one would betray him and the others would fail him from time to time. He knew that the successors of the apostles would often fail to live up to that high calling. He knew all this, and yet he chose them for this most important task.

Now then that he has chosen you. Despite your sins, despite your weaknesses, he has chosen you for some work he wants to accomplish in this world. He trusts you with some part of his plan to change this world for the better. I do not mean that he will choose you, or that he might choose you. He has chosen you. This very moment is the time to respond to the call. “"This is the time of fulfillment”, he says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” This, right now, this moment, is the time of fulfillment. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Turn away from sins, away from this world, and accept the mission that God has for you.