This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:14–20:
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.
Today’s Gospel reflects again on the call to those who would eventually become apostles of the Lord. Mark includes again, in brief, the story of Peter and Andrew from last week, and also walks us through the story of James and John. All four were fishermen who left their trade behind — the only manner in which they could make a living — when Jesus beckoned them to a new purpose in serving the Lord. As in last week’s Gospel and first reading from the Book of Samuel, we see no hesitation in the response to the Lord’s call, no sense of consideration of the momentous impact this might have on their ability to survive. All seem very eager indeed to answer God’s invitation to service.
This seems remarkable, especially given that the lives of the prophets of God hardly come to us filled with joy and privilege. Most of them were doomed to preach to people who not only didn’t want to hear from them but actively tried to shut them up, at times with murderous intent. Jeremiah was cursed with the knowledge that he spoke the truth but lacked the gift to convince people of it. Hosea got humiliated by following the Lord’s command to marry a prostitute in order to provide a demonstration of what the Lord thought of Israel’s faithfulness. Later, John the Baptist will get decapitated for telling Herod Antipas that he’d done much the same thing.
With the track record of the lives of the prophets, one would expect a few candidates to show some reluctance toward taking the job. Today’s first reading gives us one very clear example of just how far one man took that reluctance. And in this story, the allegory of fisherman gets turned on its head.
We find Jonah at about the very moment in which God puts His call into Jonah’s heart. All we know of Jonah other than the call is that he is the son of Amit’tai and that he gets a mention in 2 Kings as living in the 41-year reign of King Jeroboam II. Until God calls Jonah, he does not appear to have any special qualities, and that’s apparently what Jonah thinks, too. Rather than obey the wishes of the Lord, Jonah takes off — and tries to get as far away as possible. Tarshish’s exact location isn’t quite known today, but it’s assumed to be in the western Mediterranean, which is a looooong way from the Mesopotamian region. In those times, it would have been the other side of the world, at least the world that they knew.
The first big lesson from Jonah is that you can’t outrun God, even if you try really hard. When Jonah tries, the Lord cuts off his escape route, and his unwitting getaway drivers realize that he’s the reason for their peril, they’re all too happy to get rid of him. In fact, Jonah is so despondent about going to Nineveh that he encourages them to throw him overboard immediately, which is all but suicide. The men try taking him back to shore instead, but end up having to do as Jonah suggests in order to save themselves.
However, God isn’t letting Jonah off the hook that easily. He has a “great fish” swallow Jonah and keep him safe for his return journey to Nineveh. After three days in that status, realizing that the Lord is playing hardball, Jonah finally submits and offers thanks for the Lord’s intervention to save his life, at which point the fish “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” As Jonah regains himself, the Lord then calls Jonah to His service a second time, and this time Jonah fulfills that call.
Ironically, Jonah becomes one of the more successful prophets in biblical history. It takes three days to walk through the city proclaiming God’s warning of destruction if Nineveh refuses to repent, but by the end of the first day, the people of Nineveh have already begun fasting and wearing sackcloth. Even its king orders his people to repentance, sorrow, and conversion.
In fact, Jonah is so successful that he becomes angry and resentful about it rather than celebrate its salvation. The Lord has to teach Jonah one last lesson about compassion by offering and then withdrawing a shady plant as the prophet pouts outside the city for the salvation in a foreign land while his homeland still suffers. The situation is reminiscent of the older brother in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son.
This is what differentiates an aspiration from a calling, and we see this in today’s Gospel reading as well, albeit much less dramatically. We form ourselves to our aspirations, and that is entirely logical and in many cases laudable. Men in those times had much fewer choices for that than we do now, of course, but it still applies. We are asked from an early age to imagine what we want to become when we grow up. Most of us will begin to apply ourselves to achieving those goals in order to succeed.
A calling, on the other hand, comes from outside our own aspirations and desires. Jonah wanted to stay in Israel and certainly wanted no part of becoming a prophet. The apostles at first were tradesmen whose aspiration was to care for their families in the best way they could, which is certainly an admirable and honorable pursuit. Jesus called them out of those aspirations and expectations to which they had formed themselves, and into working on behalf of the many who need salvation.
When we are called, do we answer? Or do we, like Jonah, remain stubbornly attached to our own aspirations and our own priorities? Do we trust that the Lord will help us through our callings, even if it means adversity and hardship, and especially if it means giving up control over our lives and trusting in His love?
Note: I started off the day a little under the weather, so I apologize that this went up a little late.
The front-page image is a detail from “Jonah Cast Forth By the Whale” by Gustave Dore (d. 1883), via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.