Commentary for Epiphany III 24 January 2021
Texts for this week are Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, and Mark 1:14-20
By Father Doug Woods
Jonah 3:1-5 I keep on referring to the Book of Jonah. That’s because it’s personal to me. It’s at least partly about people who try to evade God’s call. That’s me for a major portion of my life. If you’ve read the whole book, you’ll know that Jonah tries to evade God by going to a place called Tarshish. I’ve been there many times; I have the T-shirts to prove it. Well, actually, Tarshish might be an actual place. It might be Tartessus, a Phoenician colony in southern Spain, but many (most?) think it’s just a made-up name for a vague, faraway place. Like Jonah, I’ve finally stopped resisting.
It’s worth reading the whole book (less than two pages) just to get the flavour of the whole story. After all, if you’re going to eat a stew, you want to taste the meat and the potatoes and the vegetables.
Lest we get too focussed on the person Jonah, we should step back and try to look at the whole story. It’s about God’s judgment and forgiveness. We keep on saying that God is all about compassion. Yes, God judges, but judgment could go in at least two directions: 1) condemnation or 2) forgiveness. Condemnation could look like a potter who doesn’t like his finished pot; he just smashes it and starts all over again. Forgiveness could take a couple of forms: 1) “That’s O.K. I’m not going to let this define our relationship” or 2) “Here’s what we can do to make this relationship better.”
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire was a superpower of the ancient world. Superpowers are not always benevolent; sometimes they’re bullies. Certainly, that’s how the people of Israel read it, so, when Jonah finally accepts his job as a prophet—as one who is sent with a message—he goes with the expectation that Nineveh is finally going to get its comeuppance. But here’s something; what if the whole thing blows up in Jonah’s face? And it does.
How do the great Assyrians react to Jonah’s message from God? They repent. They turn around. They go the other way. But what does repentance look like in this case? Do they accept the God of Israel? We’ve already said that in that world, people of different places had different gods; Assyria had its own gods. So does that mean that the Assyrians dropped their own gods and served the God of Israel? “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”
They “believed”? What does that mean? We’ve said before that “believe” comes from the same etymological root as “belove”. Did they love God? Well, we don’t know, but they certainly acted as if they did. And here’s what God did about it: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” That’s typical. Whenever you do anything which opens your heart to God, God welcomes you with open arms!
Psalm 62:5-12 Here’s what it might have looked like to the Quiet in the Land (e.g., Simeon and Anna in Luke’s gospel) in the face of Assyrian oppression: patient trust in God, trust that God will deliver them from all evil. They would doubtless say that you don’t have to resort to violence in times of oppression, that oppressors are really just a puff of smoke.
Look for all the things God is to the psalmist: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” You find the rest.,
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 The problem is that people don’t bother to read beyond v. 29; they get hung up on Paul’s talk about marriage. I invite you to go back and reread it. Grit your teeth and read all the way through the whole passage before you stop. Paul is telling the members of the church in Corinth that there’s now no longer time for anything—anything—but absolute essentials because the time is growing short. He’s asking people to live “as if”—as if marriage were nothing, as if mourning were nothing, as if rejoicing were nothing, as if possessions were nothing. (By the way, is that what the Assyrians did? Did they act “as if” God existed instead of their own gods?) The reason is in the punchline: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” He’s saying, “Keep your eye on the goal. Nothing else matters.” What is the goal? Salvation.
Mark 1:14-20 You know, I had to check before I went on. Did we talk about this passage too early? Had I mistaken the lectionary and gotten a week ahead? No, fortunately, but there certainly are close similarities. It’s also about “call”.
I’m sorry. To get this passage, you have to go back and read from the beginning of the chapter; its meaning is rooted in the previous thirteen verses. It’s rooted in the proclamation of John the Baptizer and the baptism and temptation of Jesus.
Now notice a few things about verses 14 and 15. Some believe that Jesus was a disciple of John, and that his ministry didn’t begin until John was arrested. After the arrest, he packed up and went back to Galilee, his home. These two verses—14 and 15—summarize the content of Jesus’ preaching: repentance and belief in the Good News. Two statements:
- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
- “The time” is the time of salvation; it’s here—finally.
- “the kingdom of God” The kingdom is central to Jesus’ preaching. It’s not as if Jesus invented the idea; it’s already mentioned in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., Psalm 47.7, Psalm 103.19, and Exodus 15.18, to name just a few. Can you find more?
- The “kingdom” is where God reigns. Of course, God reigns over the entire cosmos, though not everyone acknowledges that; that’s sin and rebellion.
- “The kingdom of God has come near” Does that mean right now, or is it in the near future? Some of Jesus’ parables, e.g., the Parable of the Growing Seed, suggest gradual growth of the kingdom until the time of “harvest”. A common answer to our question is the concept of “already/not yet”. The kingdom is already here, but it’s developing; it’s not yet.
That’s the first two verses, a transition from the introduction to the gospel in verses 1-13 and an introduction to the rest of the gospel, starting with the call of the first disciples.
The “call” story is set on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea is six or seven miles wide and thirteen or fourteen miles long (the size of some of the lakes in the Kawarthas?), and it’s 682 feet below sea level (I never knew that). Fishing was a major industry in Galilee; fish was a staple of the diet of the area—other meat was very expensive—and it was salt fish because fresh fish could not be transported over long distances.
The four fishers who are called are two sets of brothers. Simon and Andrew are sons of Jonah (not that Jonah!), and James and John are sons of Zebedee. These four become the central disciples in Jesus’ group. They’re the only ones in the gospels who have speaking parts, and they’re the ones who seem to accompany Jesus everywhere, sometimes without Andrew, e.g., at the Transfiguration.
It appears that Zebedee’s fishery was the more prosperous of the two: 1) he had employees and 2) Simon and Andrew are fishing in a different way from James and John, i.e., Simon and Andrew cast a net into the water, a net which is small enough to be cast, while James and John are setting a net something like a seine net, which is bigger. The Greek original refers to the two types of nets with different terms.
The call is simple, “Follow me,” but the rest of the call is intriguing, “I will make you fish for people.” Of course, we get it; you don’t fish for people, but it works as a metaphor; people, like fish, will be “caught”. The notion of fishing for people was already current among Jews of the time. It’s mentioned in at least four of the prophets: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Habakkuk. As mentioned by these prophets, it has potentially ominous overtones because it entails judgment, but it also speaks of redemption and pardon, a rescue from sin and death.
Another thing is Mark’s “immediately”. People say that Mark’s gospel is “immediate”, it’s about an urgent situation, an immediate reorientation of one’s life. “Immediately” occurs sixty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-seven of them in Mark. But it’s still a valid question, “Why would Simon, Andrew, James, and John react ‘immediately’”? Was it simply Jesus’ authority, or did they already know each other anyway, and it was just another step in a developing relationship? Jesus was preaching in the synagogues of the area; maybe they’d already heard him? Talked with him? Maybe they had common interests and aspirations?
We clearly have a lot of questions—and some answers. What do you think?