The Big Fish, the Great Catch, the Ultimate Commission
Those with literal minds will question many things about the Jonah story (Jonah 3:1-5, 10): the great fish, the size and population of this immense city, and the conversion of the Assyrians.
On the other hand, those who really listen to and view this story with ears and eyes of faith will take all of these other factors in stride. What is essential is not the size of God’s sea monsters, nor the distances to be covered within cities, nor the large numbers of those converted.
For people of faith, the rather amazing Jonah story contains a far greater message: because the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and turned from their evil ways, God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them. No person, place or situation is beyond God’s mercy and healing reach!
It is no wonder, then, that Christianity saw Jonah as a positive figure prefiguring Christ and his universal Gospel message. Through Christ, God approaches his world in a new, decisive way in order to fulfill all the expectations and hopes of the Old Testament.
When the disciples in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) leave their nets and present occupations in order to submit to God’s Kingdom, they model what this turning from and turning toward means. How can we bring the Good News of God and of Jesus to our cities that are often so vast, so impersonal, and so busy and filled with noise?
At times do we not often run the other way to the lake and wait for some speedboat or cruise ship to pick us up and take us to a quiet, peaceful place that is much less complicated and less hostile to our message? How can we Christians be the souls of our cities?
We begin by celebrating the Eucharist with devotion and love. We must pray incessantly. We continue to do many hidden, quiet sacrifices each day of our lives with love, peace and joy. We take our baptism seriously and activate the Beatitudes in daily living. We must never give up in living God’s Word and preaching it to others in words and deeds.
Whenever I read the story of Jonah, I am reminded of a story I heard in Jerusalem during the four years of my graduate studies in the Holy Land. One day my Muslim neighbours had invited me to meet their Imam. As we sat and sipped tea in the Old City of Jerusalem, the religious leader of the small mosque near my house spoke about the mercy of Allah.
He recounted a story about a certain Muslim – Youssef ben-al-Husayn – who died in the year 917. Youssef had received from his master the order to preach incessantly. He had however been very misunderstood and ostracized, and the time came when he had no more people who would listen to his words and messages.
One day Youssef entered the mosque to preach and not a soul was present. He was leaving the mosque when an old woman cried out to him: “Youssef, if the people are absent, the Almighty, he is surely present. Even though no one is here, teach the Word of Allah!”
Thus Youssef preached the word for 50 years, whether or not anyone was present to hear it. He didn’t give up because of people’s indifference, cynicism, absence or wickedness. He simply remained faithful to his vocation of preaching the word of Allah.
Youssef ben-al-Husayn and Jonah probably experienced a bit of prophetic fatigue in their day. They continued to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. We know what happened because of Jonah’s persistence and fidelity to that word.
I am sure that Jesus must have felt the same way on many occasions. Was anyone really listening to his message? And with January 25 marking the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, how could we not think of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, and his trials and tribulations endured as he preached the Gospel?
In the Acts of the Apostles (18:8-10), Paul arrives in Corinth, and we are told that “many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.” One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”
The Year of St. Paul
One of the great hopes and goals of Benedict XVI in proclaiming the Year of St. Paul in June 2008, was to have every Catholic hold up a mirror to his or her life and to ask, “Am I as determined and as energetic about spreading the Catholic faith as St. Paul was?”
Our Catholic faith only grows when we consciously and conscientiously share it with others. Christ will look at each one of us with his merciful eyes at our individual judgment and ask what efforts we made during the course of our lifetime to invite people into communion with Jesus Christ and his Church. In the end, the Lord will ask us: “Did you love me? To whom did you preach the Good News? How many people did you bring with you?”
The Ultimate Commission
What does Jesus Christ demand of us today? Repentance, conversion, a turning away from our own ideas about how God’s Kingdom should operate and a turning toward belief in Christ’s teaching and example about God’s Kingdom that is among us here and now. Our ultimate commission is to preach the word of God in season and out of season.
May the fire that the Holy Spirit poured into the heart of St. Paul of Tarsus, inflame our hearts to be vibrant and effective missionaries throughout our lives. May it strengthen us never to give up, especially when it seems like no one is listening any more. For it is precisely at such moments that the Lord will say again to us: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-11).
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation