Thursday, January 18, 2024

January 21st, 2024 -- 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

                                   Biblical Words                                                  [864] 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10Psalm 62:5-12; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

 Those who really hear God’s call to repent make major changes in their lives. 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10.  

The prophetic reading portrays Jonah, reluctantly accepting the role of prophet, preaching the time of judgment to Nineveh—with amazing success. 

This story is not interested in what it would really take to preach repentance to an arrogant people.  The story is interested in Jonah’s struggles to come to terms with God’s ways with sinners (see especially chapter 4).  Nineveh simply stands for the mightiest city, the fiercest military power, and the least likely people to repent that could be found in the table of nations.  Both the size of the city and the number of its population are fabulous (3:3 and 4:11), magnifying the improbability of any favorable response to a half-hearted prophet.  Yet God works the wonder! 

In the reading, Jonah only pronounces judgment on the city; he is not quoted as even offering repentance as an option.  The king and city, however, understand the judgment to be conditional, and respond properly with fasting, sackcloth, lamentations, and changing their evil ways (details in verse 8, not included in the reading).  Because they heed the preaching and change their ways, the Lord also changes his decision and turns aside the great judgment (verse 10). 

The repentance of the folks of Nineveh will become one of the meanings of the “sign of Jonah” for those who will later hear Jesus’ disciples preach: 

The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!  (Matthew 12:41, NRSV) 

Psalm 62:5-12.  

The Psalm selection presents a speaker of high standing who has been abused by false accusations (referred to in verses 3-4).  She or he declares to the people that such accusations are powerless, that only trust in God matters.  Such confidence in God must be maintained over against all other objects of trust, including wealth.  The speaker declares that God “alone” is one's rock and salvation, one's hope. 

This total trust on one's part is urged upon the assembly of peoples present before God.  The strong verb “trust in” (bataḥ) is used twice to balance the positive and the negative objects of religious trust:  “Trust in [God] at all times…” (verse 8); “Trust not in extortion… robbery…” (verse 10, where NRSV translates “Put no confidence in …”).  God’s faithful ones are to trust in God instead of prestige and social status (verse 9) or wealth, particularly ill-gotten wealth (verse 10). 

In concluding, the speaker adopts the style of the teacher of proverbs:  “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this”:  The critical message is, “power belongs to God” (verse 11).   That is essential for the followers of the Lord to believe, that all things human weigh less in the scales of destiny than hot air (verse 9)! 

While a human proposes, it is God who disposes.

I Corinthians 7:29-31.  

The demands that the call of God makes on one’s life is what links this Epistle reading to the theme of this Sunday.  These three verses form a parenthesis within a longer passage dealing with Paul’s recommendations concerning getting married. 

The question in the larger passage is whether the unmarried (the virgins, male and female, and in verse 39 the widows) can get married without sin (7:25-28, 32-40).  Paul’s criterion is very pragmatic:  “I want you to feel free from anxieties” (verse 32, NRSV).  He thinks getting married increases anxieties, and the unmarried can give themselves more completely to the Lord because they are not worrying about whether the spouse is happy (verses 32-35). 

The parenthesis in the midst of this is a flash back to the basic reality of early Christian life:  the Lord may return at any time. 

“The appointed time (kairos) has grown short,” and this urgency impels God’s elect to act as if worldly matters no longer existed.  Mourners should act as if there is no mourning; joyful ones as if there is no rejoicing; commercial people as if possessions no longer matter; and—married ones as if they are not married. 

Paul’s first impulse, apparently, is that even the married should forget about family matters and devote themselves wholly to preparing for the coming of the Lord, “for the present form of the world is passing away” (verse 31).   

This “parenthesis” (verses 29-31) looks like an enumeration of end-time priorities that Paul ran through whenever he had to dramatize the urgency of the impending end.  It may apply better, however, to the demands on disciples and apostles than to demands on church people at large, especially after a few years of still waiting for the end judgment. 

For church people at large, then, the whole passage 7:25-40 must be the guidance on marriage.  Followers who are completely committed disciples are addressed in the parenthesis.  They may be called to live as if some worldly conditions (including the lure to marriage) do not operate.  

Folks such as these may experience Jesus’ call as a commitment to a singularly devoted life. 

Mark 1:14-20.  

In the Gospel reading Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is at hand and calls four fishermen of Galilee to be his followers. 

The passage says that Jesus came “proclaiming the good news.”   There is no detailed teaching from Jesus here, only a sweeping summary of his whole message: 

Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! (verse 15, CEB [Common English Bible]). 

Only later will we hear examples of Jesus’ actual teaching:  the  parables of chapter 4.  Here it is Jesus’ actions, which often include provocative sayings, that present, in the next three chapters, the power and message of the newly Spirit-guided messenger of the Kingdom. 

The kingdom of God comes through the power that Jesus exercises for those in need.  That is the presence of the kingdom.  That presence is good news, good news especially for those who need good news in their lives.  Such are the people we will meet, scene by scene, as we move through Mark. 

The coming of the kingdom has as its very first event the calling of disciples.  The scene of this calling (verses 16-20) is carefully constructed.  Of the setting we are told only that they are on the shore and have their fishing equipment about them.  No conversation is reported except Jesus’ “Come, follow me,” and, in the case of the first two, his wordplay about making them fish for people.  (Fishing for people is understood to be a higher, if more ambiguous, calling than fishing for fish.)  In succinct statements the narrator reports that the two sets of brothers left their work and followed Jesus. 

There is a deliberate aura around this scene:  here is a figure of mysterious power; he says, “Come,” and people come.  Those people are taken up into an enterprise vast beyond their conceptions, and in what follows they will repeatedly wonder who this is who has called them (as in 4:41).  There is enacted here, in reference to the first disciples, what the next narrative says more directly about Jesus’ teaching:  “he was teaching them with authority” (1:22). 

This authority we understand is the work of the Holy Spirit, which will in time sustain these people called to give their lives to their Lord (see Mark 13:11). 

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