Of Whales and War
January 26, 2003
An old fisherman found himself at the pearly gates of heaven and was greeted by St. Peter. “Friend,” said Peter, “what are you doing here?”
“I want to get in,” said the fisherman. “I want to enter heaven.”
“I’m sorry,” said St. Peter, “but you can’t come in. You’ve simply told too many lies during your life.”
This caused the fisherman to fall on his knees and plead, “Have a heart Peter. Remember you were a fisherman once yourself.”
Fishermen and fish stories are notorious for exaggeration. Fish stories often disregard the truth. This, however, is not the case in the Book of Jonah, which is perhaps the most famous fish story of all time. Today’s first reading is from the Book of Jonah. It is the only time that the Book of Jonah appears in the Sunday lectionary, and we are at a great disadvantage because we have only a piece of this story. If we were to understand the message of the Book of Jonah, we would not find an exaggeration or a lie. We would discover an astounding revelation, an startling truth concerning God’s mercy.
The section that we just heard from the Book of Jonah describes Jonah’s preaching at Nineveh. It tells us that at his preaching the entire city listens to what he says, repents and believes in God. Therefore, God extends mercy to the city. In itself this small section seems like a straightforward account of a prophet preaching, people listening and repenting; but there is much more to the story of Jonah than this.
In order to really understand what this story of Jonah is about, we need to know who the Ninevites were. Nineveh was the capitol of the ancient empire of Assyria, and the Assyrians were the most violent and feared people in the ancient world. They were always seeking to extend their empire and they did so by whatever means available. They were violent and ruthless. The Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and almost captured Jerusalem. Therefore, all the people of the ancient world, but particularly the Jews, hated the Assyrians. So did Jonah. So when God asked Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, Jonah did not want to go. Jonah was afraid that his preaching might be the very excuse that God needed to forgive and show mercy to the Assyrians. Jonah did not want that to happen. He did not want his enemies to receive God’s mercy. Therefore, when God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, he runs away. This is recounted in the first part of the Book of Jonah. Jonah books passage on a ship to Tarshish, trying to run away from God’s command. This is where the fish comes in. God sends a storm, Jonah ends up in the water, and the fish comes and swallows him.
God does not intend to hurt Jonah. God wants to stop Jonah, stop him from running away. So in the section we just heard today, Jonah goes, under duress, and preaches to the Assyrians. His worst fears are realized. His enemies repent and God shows them mercy. God forgives them despite their wicked ways. The conclusion of the Book of Jonah, which comes after today’s reading, is a prolonged conversation between God and Jonah in which God tries to convince Jonah not to be angry because mercy was shown to the Assyrians. God says to Jonah, “I know you are upset with me. I know that you are angry because I forgave and showed mercy to the Assyrians. But what do you expect me to do? There are over 120,000 people living in the great city of Nineveh and they need me as much as you do. I can’t forget them. I have to be concerned about them.”
It is clear that the Book of Jonah is a fable written by a Jew to tell us that we should never believe that God hates our enemies as we do. This inspired book from the Hebrew Bible reveals once and for all whose side God is on. It insists that God is on all sides. Or more correctly, God does not take sides in the numerous divisions and conflicts that so often divide humanity.
How is this ancient story of Jonah relevant to our situation? It speaks to us in a dramatically direct way. In an irony of history, the ancient city of Nineveh is located in what is today modern day Iraq. As you know, the United States is now in the process of confronting and possibly invading that very country. However, what the Book of Jonah tells us is clear. If we go to war with Iraq, we can never presume that God is on our side. War should always be a last resort. Even a justified war is always a tragedy, because in every war innocent men, women, and children will die. We can imagine God tolerating a war, but we should never imagine God endorsing a war. For whoever suffers in war, whoever dies in war, belongs to God. God does not love Jews more than Assyrians, or Americans more than Iraqi. God simply sees all people as God’s children.
So far from telling us a lie, this remarkable fish story from the Hebrew Bible reveals something true about our God. It tells us how God is always above any of the divisions or conflicts that divide us. It tells us why God always prefers peace to war, life to death, mercy over vengeance. Now I know that we live in a complicated world. I believe that we must take steps to protect ourselves from those who would harm us. But as our country seeks a way to do this, we as believers must remember where our God stands. Jesus knew the message of the Book of Jonah. For Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Those are words by which we are called to live.
God Alone Remains
January 22, 2006
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
The apostle Paul, together with the entire early church, believed that Jesus would return in a matter of months. Paul believed that the world would come to end in his lifetime. It is for this reason that Paul can write the rather peculiar words that we heard in today’s second reading to the Corinthians:
From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.
Why does Paul speak this way? He believes that the time is short and the present form of the world is passing away. So if in a short time the world will be gone, Paul advises the Corinthians to practice now for that new world: to live as if they did not have spouses or possessions, joys or sorrows. For shortly Christ would come and then there would be a new creation.
Well, Paul was wrong. The world did not end in a matter of months. Two millennia later, we are still waiting for Christ to return. So it is understandable to question whether the words that Paul wrote to the Corinthians still have any validity for us. Why do we continue to proclaim these words as the word of God? I would suggest to you that the words of Paul still have a relevance to our lives because the present form of the world is passing away. Even if this is not true in the cosmic sense that Paul understood with Jesus coming on the clouds of glory. The world is passing away in the personal terms of our own lives.
Our lives are passing away. Are you in the sixth grade? You won’t be next year. Are you in your thirties? That’s not going to last. Are you married? You will eventually have to say goodbye. Do you have a job? You won’t be working it forty years from now. In the foreseeable future someone else will be living in your house. Your health and your energy, these too are fading. There is nothing, nothing in our lives that will always remain the way it is today. This is undeniable fact. Yet we do not like facing it because the recognition that our world is passing away can lead to anxiety and depression. We can begin to worry, “How long before my marriage or my job ends? How long before I lose my possessions or lose my health? How long before I will have to say goodbye to what I love?” Recognizing that our lives are passing can indeed lead to depression.
But there is another option, another way to view and to cope with the passing nature of our lives. It is the way that Paul recommends in the second reading, and it’s called detachment. Detachment seeks to live life with the recognition that nothing in life will be here forever: not our spouse, not our job, not our health. All these things are things we only have for awhile. And since all things are passing, everything in itself is insufficient. There is nothing that is enough, nothing which will satisfy forever—with one exception. The one exception is God. Only God is sufficient. Only God will last. This is why the way of detachment is recognized by Christians and other religious people as a path to God. Because as we let go of the things that are insufficient, we recognize the One who is sufficient. As we detach ourselves with the things that are passing away, we encounter the One who will remain forever. When our health and our spouse are gone, when our possessions no longer bring joy, when our work is done, God will still be there. God alone remains.
Detachment then is a way of practicing what eventually will be demanded from us: letting go of everything which does not last. The remarkable thing about detachment is that it does not make us love the world less, but more. Men and women of detachment love more deeply and rejoice more sincerely, for they see all things, all of their relationships, all of their possessions, as what they really are—passing gifts from a God who alone remains.
Paul then is calling us to practice detachment. To love the people and things in our life deeply, but realize that they are only with us for a while. To realize that anything we try to hold on to—anything—will slip through our fingers, with one exception. This is the good news. For the one thing that is sufficient, the one thing that will always remain is ours. God is ours. We can surrender ourselves to God today, and we can hold on to God’s love. This is why people of detachment are people who are secure, peaceful, and joyful. For they know that although the world is passing, they can hold on to God today—and they can keep on holding forever.
Living in a Passing World
January 22, 2012
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
In this short and pithy selection from his first letter to the Corinthians Paul first says, “The time is running out.” He then gives a number of directions that are hard to understand. He tells us that those having wives should live as if they don’t, those weeping as if they are not weeping, those rejoicing as if they are not rejoicing. What is Paul talking about? When I was a deacon in Akron one of my first homilies was on this passage. I did my best to try to make sense of it. I spent a good deal of time emphasizing the phrase, “those who have wives should act as if they don’t.” After the mass a woman came up to me and said, “That’s my husband’s favorite passage of scripture. He hardly pays any attention to me at all.”
Paul is really not giving us advice about marriage, and he certainly does not intend that husbands ignore their wives. He is trying to say something much more fundamental. His point becomes clear in the last line of the reading. “The present form of the world is passing away.” Now, such a statement was good news for the early church. It was not good news because they thought the present form of the world was bad. It was good news because they understood that the present world was going to be replaced with something much better. It was going to be replaced with the Kingdom of God.
What is the Kingdom of God? It is God’s re-creation of the world in such a way that every evil is destroyed and God’s will is perfectly done. The early church believed that when Jesus returned in glory he would establish the Kingdom and God would be All in All. This is why Paul gives the directions he does in this section of 1st Corinthians. He says, “Yes, you have to go on living: marrying, weeping, rejoicing, buying, doing all of those things. But you need to do them with a certain reserve, with a certain detachment because something that is much better is about to appear. So do not become too invested in what you are experiencing now, God’s Kingdom is soon to come.”
Now, of course, the early church believed that the Kingdom would come soon. Paul believed it would happen in his lifetime. It is 2000 years later and we are still waiting. You and I do not live with the expectation that the Kingdom will come tomorrow. But we still believe it will come. Look at our memorial acclamation at mass, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” The timetable of the early church was off, but the promise is secure. This is what makes the second reading from today’s mass important to us. It reminds us that as believers in Christ we live in the expectation of something better, of something greater that God will bring about in our world.
This gives us an advantage over those who do not have faith. Without faith life is what it is. If you are lucky, your life is successful. If you are unlucky, your life is a failure. You do your best and then you die, and that’s it. But for people of faith, no matter what we are experiencing now—good or ill—all is going to be overcome by the approaching Kingdom of God. We are called, then, according to the words of Paul to live our lives with a certain reserve, with a certain detachment, knowing that the Kingdom of God is coming and we are called to participate in it.
If we accept this perspective it allows us to lessen our pain and deepen our joy. All of us experience pain and trouble in our lives from sickness, rejection, death. Such struggles with evil are real. But for people of faith, no matter how evil touches our lives today, we know that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away and our pain will be erased in the glory of Christ’s victory. This perspective also deepens our joy. Even as we live with bounty and success we, as people of faith, still know that something better is yet to come. Our deepest blessings are only a hint, only a shadow, of what God will give us in the coming of the Kingdom.
Therefore, although the words of Paul seem strange to us, he is calling us to live the present in light of the future, a glorious future which comes from God. We as believers always know that we are moving toward something better. All the good we experience is only a shadow of the Kingdom of God that has been promised to us. This is our faith. This is the good news. Let us embrace it. Come, Lord Jesus!
What God Dreams for Us
January 25, 2015
Once upon a time a boy said to God: “Oh God, when I grow up, I want to live in a huge house with a big front porch and two Great Danes that can play in the backyard. I want to marry a tall woman who is very beautiful and kind, who has long black hair and blue eyes, and who plays the guitar and sings in a high clear voice. I want to have three sons with whom I can play football. One of them will grow up to be a famous scientist, the other a senator, and the third will play quarterback for the Browns in the Super Bowl. I want to be an adventurer and cross over oceans and climb mountains. I want to drive a Ferrari, and I never want to pick up after myself.”
God said, “That’s a beautiful dream, and I want you to be happy.” But a few years later the boy injured his knee playing football, and his life as an adventurer was over. So he went to college and earned a degree in marketing and founded a medical supply company. In college he met a pretty girl who was loving and kind, but was not glamorous. She was no musician, but she was a marvelous cook. He married her, and because of the business they lived in a downtown apartment. Their balcony had to suffice for a big front porch. There was no room for two Great Danes—only one fluffy cat. They had three daughters (not sons), and the loveliest of the three had to use a wheelchair. The man’s business provided comfortably for his family, but he never owned a Ferrari. And because he had three daughters, he spent most of his life picking things up. When he retired, he supported his wife in her long battle with cancer, and when she died, he moved in with one of his daughters.
Then one night he talked to God again. “Oh God,” he said, “Do you remember when I was a small boy and I told you what I wanted in my life?”
“I do,” said God. “That was a beautiful dream.”
“Well, then,” said the man, “Why didn’t you give me what I wanted?”
“I could have,” said God, “but I thought that I would surprise you with things you never dreamed of. And, if I do say so myself, the package I put together for you was one of my best. Do you disagree?”
“Not really,” said the man, “but my life is not what I expected.”
“No, it is not,” said God. “But my job is not to give you what you expect but to give you what is good.”
In today’s gospel Jesus calls four of his disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John. We can be sure that all four of these men had dreams and expectations for their lives. Those expectations probably centered on their families and their fishing business. But the gospel doesn’t say anything about their expectations, because it centers on what is most important: the fact that Jesus called them, and they trusted him enough to follow him, to let him lead them into the future. Of course when they followed him many things changed. They were not catching fish anymore, but people. They were traveling with Jesus around Galilee and Judea, listening to his teaching, witnessing his death and resurrection, and becoming his messengers throughout the world for a new creation. Their lives were not what they expected. But the gospel doesn’t say anything about those expectations or about how their lives developed. All it tells us is that Jesus called them and they followed him.
The gospel does this to emphasize what is essential in our lives. It wants us to realize that God is real and is calling us. It wants us to know that our lives will unfold not as we dream them but as God dreams them. The gospel, then, calls us to trust, to open our hearts and allow Christ to make his dream for us a reality. All of us can think of things in our lives we had thought would be different, things in our family, things in our business, things in our relationships. There were successes we never achieved and dangers that we did not avoid. But today’s gospel tells us that all those expectations are secondary. What is primary is that Christ has called us and we are to follow him. And we should follow him because he is trustworthy. We can place our lives in his hands as long as we remember that his commitment to us is not to give us what we expect—but to give us what is good.
January 21, 2018
Mark 1: 14-20
Zebedee was a fisherman. Now, no one became wealthy catching fish in the Sea of Galilee, but Zebedee was proud of what he had accomplished. By skill and hard work, he had established a steady fishing business with a number of satisfied clients. He was particularly happy that his business would continue. His two sons, James and John, were fishermen themselves, and Zebedee was confident that they would carry on the family business after he was gone.
But today, Zebedee arrives home from work early. And from the minute he walks into the house, his wife knows something is wrong.
“Zeb,” she said, “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You can’t believe what happened today,” Zebedee said. “You really won’t believe what happened.”
“How can I believe,” his wife said, “unless you tell me. What happened?”
“The boys are gone.”
“What do you mean, the boys are gone?”
“ They got up and they left.”
“Left how? Left why?”
“We were all in the boat mending the nets and then this man walks by and says just a few words to them and they got up and followed him.”
“Followed him?” his wife said. “Without an explanation?”
“Without even a goodbye,” Zebedee said. “ They left me sitting in the boat, together with the hired men. I always thought I understood my sons but what they did today makes no sense to me.”
“Well,” his wife said, “are they coming back?”
“I don’t know,” said Zebedee.
“But what about our future? The business? Our grandchildren?
“I don’t know,” said Zebedee.
“Zeb, this is really a serious matter.”
“I agree,” said Zebedee. “It’s serious indeed.”
The character of Zebedee in today’s gospel is a reminder that people in our life sometimes fail to meet our expectations. People we love, people we trust will sometimes make decisions that confound us and disturb us.
Our daughter tells us that she has found someone to marry and presents us with a man that we believe is incompatible with her and perhaps manipulative. Our son announces his sexual orientation or tells us that he is about to adopt a lifestyle with which we cannot agree. A close friend who we have always admired for his business acumen convinces us to invest in a venture that he should have known would fall apart. Our spouse develops an interest or attitude that we could never anticipate and threatens the unity between us. When people in our lives fail to meet our expectations, we, like Zebedee, find ourselves with more questions than answers and a profound disappointment that the people we love are not the people we thought them to be. In that disappointment, we are tempted to react with anger and announce that our relationships have come to an end.
The scriptures never tell us how Zebedee reacted to the departure of his two sons. But the very lack of information suggests to us that his response was a moderate and patient one—choosing to wait in his confusion and in his disappointment, choosing to wait until the future made things clear. We know from history that James and John never returned to the family fishing business. From the time that day when they set out after Jesus, they were his ‘til the end. But perhaps a day came when Zebedee could look at the decision of his two boys and recognize that their choice was not at foolish as it first appeared to him.
The experience of Zebedee calls us to wait and be patient when people we love make decisions that we do not understand. Time will tell. Perhaps time will show that the choices they made were as senseless and as destructive as we had feared. But time may also reveal that what they chose to do was deeper and richer than we imagined. And perhaps, if we’re very lucky, we may come to understand that the choices others made, which seemed foolish to us at the time, were in fact a response to a call from God.
A Standoff with God
January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Today is the only time in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle that we have a reading from the Book of Jonah. That is a shame because this book has a deep and relevant message for our lives. Some of you know that Jonah was the prophet who was swallowed by a whale. But that is not what the Book of Jonah is about. The Book of Jonah is about a disagreement, a standoff, between Jonah and God. The standoff concerns the Assyrians.
The Assyrians were a people of the ancient world hated by all. They ruled a cruel empire and conquered many nations, treating them violently. Jonah certainly hated the Assyrians. He wanted them to be destroyed. He wanted them to suffer for their crimes. But here is where the disagreement of the Book of Jonah emerges. God did not want the Assyrians to be destroyed. God wanted them to change. This is why God sent Jonah to the Assyrians to preach, so that they would repent and become righteous people. Now Jonah did not want to obey God’s command. The last thing he wanted was for the Assyrians to repent and thereby receive God’s love and mercy. But God insists. In today’s first reading, Jonah arrives at Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and preaches. The entire city repents and is saved. This makes Jonah furious. He erupts in anger. He tells God he no longer will serve as his prophet, and he asks God to end his life.
Now the story of the Book of Jonah is told in a fanciful and extreme way, but its relevance to our lives is clear. There are times when you and I, like Jonah, find ourselves in a standoff with God about who deserves God’s love and mercy.
You see, as we live our lives, we take sides. God does not. We consider people who agree with us to be intelligent and worthy of respect and those who disagree with us to be ignorant and to be ignored. But God does not ignore anyone. God loves everyone as a son or daughter. We believe that when someone does something wrong, they should be punished. But the Book of Jonah tells us that God is not looking for punishment. God is looking for an opportunity to show mercy. So, we can find ourselves at a standoff with God, because God is opposed to every expression of partisan thinking. God is against every example of glorified nationalism. God rejects every call for violent retribution. These are ways of thinking into which you and I can be tempted to fall.
But here is the good news of the Book of Jonah. Even if we do fall into partisan and vengeful thinking, God does not reject us. Throughout the whole Jonah story, Jonah remains a nationalistic bigot, but God does not walk away from Jonah. God continues to guide Jonah, to talk to Jonah, and to care for Jonah. God will do the same for us. Even if we are unable to forgive, even if we are unwilling to consider another point of view, even if we are overcome with anger against our enemy, God does not give up on us. God keeps patiently calling for us to change.
Of course, in fact, there can be no standoff between God and us. Both the Bible and our faith tradition tell us that God is always right, and we must accept God’s point of view. But God gives us time to reach that understanding. And until we attain God’s perspective, God continues to walk by our side, loving us as daughters and sons.