Commentary: 3rd Sunday B

“Today’s three texts all emphasize the urgency of conversion, for there is no time for anything else” ~ Balthasar, LW, 162

First Reading: Jonah 3:1–5, 10

“It is clear that God wanted to achieve conversion and had no interest in destruction. Since conversion took place there was no need for destruction to follow. But the threat of destruction was no mere scare tactic. He really meant it and the Nineties rightly took him seriously in this regard. Perhaps they also understood the positive side: that God always wants the good, never destruction; that only where conversion is brushed aside must he wipe out evil for the sake of good. The irony of the book of Jonah is that the prophet becomes annoyed at Yahweh’s inconsistency: How can a God threaten ruin and then not carry it out” ~ Balthasar, LW, 163

“Today’s 1st reading is about Jonah’s mission to the Gentiles in Nineveh, the the capital city of Assyria, which is where kind of the heart of the Empire that led to the scattering of the 10 northern tribes. So there’s a link here. Jonah is a prophet to the Gentiles, just like the apostles will eventually be sent amongst the Gentile nations… The reason the Church is giving us this is because it’s the story of Jonah’s mission as a prophet, it’s a mission of repentance. He’s calling these Gentiles to repent of their sin, to turn away from their sin, and you can see that through the penances that they engage in… So the reason the Church put this as the first reading is because it’s kind of an Old Testament anticipation of the mission of the apostles.”  ~ Dr. Pitre

Why does the Bible, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit, why does it say that God repented of the evil that he had planned to do to the Nin’evites? I thought God couldn’t do evil and I also thought he couldn’t change his mind because he’s God. He’s eternal. He’s outside of time. He’s not subject to change. So what would we say about that? In this case I always try to tell students when you encounter a difficult text like that in the Bible, it’s really important to not simply try to figure it out for yourself, although that’s important, it’s also important to ask “well wait, what do the great minds in the history of the Church have to say about this passage”? What explanations have they offered? Look at the early Church Vathers, the doctors, the Pope, the magesterium, and that kind of thing. And in this instance, one great place to go was always St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas Aquinas lived in the 13th century. He’s a Doctor of the Church; he’s called the Common and Universal Doctor, and is also called the Angelic Doctor. His teaching is widely honored and revered by Popes throughout the centuries, and in his famous work the Summa Theologica, which means, “the summary of theology”, he actually takes up this very issue. So I actually have a copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica here, small little book; first two volumes, last three volumes. It’s a massive, massive work, and he covers so many questions, so many theological topics, and so many issues, and the one I want to look at today is from volume 1 of the Summa Theologica. It’s in question 19, the seventh article, and he has an article where he asked the question whether God’s will can change? Because that’s what the reading from the book of Jonah suggests, right, that God changed his mind and repented of the evil which he had done. And I have a little outline for you there, just to kind of summarize it, but St. Thomas says this: It seems that the Will of God is changeable. For the Lord says, “I repent that I have made man” (Gen 6:7)… In other words “I’m sorry that I’ve made man”, right, which makes it sound like he’s changing his mind. This is story of the flood, where he sees the wickedness of mankind and he says I’m sorry that I’ve made man, or I repent that I’ve made man. And so that can give you the impression that God has changed his mind. But St. Thomas says this: On the contrary, It is said: God is not as a man, that He should lie, nor as the son of man, that He should be changed (Num. 23:19) … So he’s pointing out that, no you have to interpret that verse in light of other scriptures, which make it clear that God does not change. So how are we to understand the statement that he repented? He says this: These words of the Lord are to be understood metaphorically, and according to the likeness of our nature. Meaning out human nature. For when we repent, we destroy what we have made; although we may even do so without change of will; as, when a man wills to make a thing, at the same time intending to destroy it later. Therefore God is said to have repented, by way of comparison with our mode of acting. And so far, as by the flood, He destroyed from the face of the Earth, men whom He had made.2 So what Thomas is basically saying there is that the language of God changing, or repenting, is not to be taken literally, it is to be taken metaphorically, or some people will call it anthropomorphically. In other words, we talk about God in human language as if he were a human being, but whenever the Scriptures, or when philosophers or theologians like St. Thomas, are precise about it, they make clear that in his essence God cannot change. However, what does change in the book of Jonah is the effect, right. He tells them if you don’t repent, this is what’s going to happen. And then when they do repent it doesn’t happen. And so metaphorically we can speak of God having changed, or having repented, of what he was going to do with them in response to their repentance. Although, obviously, from God’s point of view, from all eternity, he’s known about their repentance, but they don’t know about their repentance, and Jonah doesn’t know necessarily that they’re going to actually repent; he’s sent on a mission. So it’s one of those cases where the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they do speak to us in human language, and they speak to us in human idioms about things that are divine, things that God does. And you might say, well hold on, what about the evil issue, like why does God say, or why does Scripture say, he repented of the evil that he was to do to them? This Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. 19. 7 2 one’s actually even a little easier; it basically is a language issue. In Hebrew the word for evil, ra’ah, is also the word for suffering, or misery, or distress. In other words, there is no Hebrew word for “suffering,” which is can be something bad that happens to us, whether it’s our fault or not, or whether it’s morally bad, good or neutral, right. We have a word like that in English, “suffering”, where as the word “evil” in English connotes that it’s always something that is wrong, like it’s morally wrong to do that. Hebrew doesn’t have a word like that, it just has the word evil, ra’ah, which can mean “things that are morally bad,” but it also may just mean misery, or distress, or suffering. Pope John Paul II actually points this out in his apostolic letter on redemptive suffering, on human suffering, Salvifici Doloris is the name of it, it’s a great letter. And he just points out that in the Old Testament, because there is no word for misery or suffering or distress, sometimes it will say that God himself “does evil”, when what it means is that God can cause suffering, God can cause distress through his punishments, as when he punishes human beings for turning away from him. And then that, in this case, that’s what’s being described here. It’s describing the suffering and the misery that is going to come upon the Ninevites if they don’t repent, but because they do repent that “evil,” that suffering, that misery does not come upon them, God does not inflict a punishment on them. That’s what the expression means, “God repented of the evil which he intended to do to them.”

Psalm: Psalm 25:4–9

The Responsorial Psalm reflects the overall theme — “that spirit of openness to whatever God’s vocation is for us, whatever God’s call is for each of us individually, to whatever God’s mission is for us. That’s the main theme of the Psalm; teach me your ways, O Lord.” ~ Dr. Pitre

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29–31

“Because of the urgency of the time and the disintegrating shape of the world, all the goods that we have and need to use in this world must be owned and employed with enough indifference that one could do without them at any point. Time is loaned to us only on the condition that it can be canceled at a moment’s notice.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 163

Gospel: Mark 1:14–20

Today’s Gospel is separated chronologically from last Sunday’s Gospel (John 1).

14 Now after John was arrested,

The fact that John the Baptist was arrested shows that this Gospel scene is different from last Sundays, where John had introduced Andrew to Jesus.

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

This expression of Jesus refers to the book of Daniel chapter 2, where Daniel gives the only explicit prophecy of the future coming of “the kingdom,” that will be established by God himself, in other words, the kingdom of God. And in that prophecy Daniel sets up, basically, a timeline of these four kingdoms: the Babylonian Empire, then the Persian (middle Persian Empire in the Fifth Century), then the Greek empire in the Fourth Century B.C., and then the Roman Empire was going to come and take over in the First Century B.C. And then during that time of the fourth kingdom, the fourth Empire, the Roman Empire, a little stone will come, be cut out and will become a great kingdom that spreads throughout the whole earth, become a great mountain, and that stone is a symbol for the kingdom of God. So when Jesus says “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand”, he is alluding to the book of Daniel, which was very popular in First Century Jewish circles precisely because unlike the other prophets who just said, you know, “one day God’s going to send a Savior, one day God’s going to make the world new again, one day he’s going to forgive our sins”, Daniel actually gives a timeline, Daniel gives a sequence. He gives a chronology to the coming of the kingdom of God and to the coming of the Son of Man, who was a messianic figure, and he shows that during the time of the fourth Empire after Babylon, which any First Century Jew would’ve known was Rome, many of them in fact interpreted it as Rome, that at that time the God of heaven would set up a kingdom on earth that would spread throughout the whole world like a stone turning into a great mountain, but that this kingdom would never ever be destroyed. Unlike David’s kingdom or Babylon’s Kingdom, or middle Persian, or the Romans, or the Greeks, all those other kingdoms were destroyed, but this final kingdom would not be destroyed. So in a sense, what Jesus is saying is the time of fulfillment, the time of the prophecies has come, turn away from your sin and accept the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand.” ~ Dr. Pitre

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.

Based on last Sunday’s Gospel (John 1), Simon and Andrew must have gone back to being fisherman after the arrest of John the Baptist.

17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.

“Fishers of men” alludes to Jeremiah 16:14-16, where, 500 years before Christ, Jeremiah prophecies that one day people will speak of a new Exodus where God will gather together all His scattered children from throughout the Gentiles (where they had been scattered by the Assyrian exile in 722 BC.) and Jeremiah uses the imagery of fishing for human beings: “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them” (Jeremiah 16:16).

“He’s basically telling them I’m calling you to, basically, be the prophets of the new exodus. I’m calling you to be the fishers of the new exodus, who will go not just into one country, but into all the countries of the Earth to bring men back to God and to gather again, watch this, the lost tribes of Israel who Assyria had scattered. So those lost tribes, you might recall from previous videos, 10 of the 12 tribes were scattered among the nations and the prophet said one day all 12 tribes are going to be gathered together again. And the Jews at the time said, well how’s that going to happen when we don’t even know where they are, they are mixed in with all the Gentiles. Well Jesus here steps into that situation and begins to call the first four of the 12 apostles, right, calling them to be fishers of men because they are, in a sense, going to constitute around him a new Israel. They’re the beginning of a new Israel that’s going to inaugurate a new exodus, and that’s going to bring people back to God through repentance from sin and through preparation for the coming of his kingdom.”

“And you can imagine, put yourself in Peter or Andrew or James or John’s place. If you had believed in John the Baptist, if you had hopes that he was, you know, the great prophet who is going to inaugurate the new exodus, right. Think about it, where did John do his public ministry? He did in the river Jordan. What was the river Jordan? That was where the first exodus had ended, right? In the book of Joshua 5, when they finally got through the 40 years of traveling in the desert, they came to the river Jordan and then they miraculously crossed through the Jordan River and they make it to the Promised Land. So John the Baptist was also a prophet of the new exodus. He went to the place where the first exodus had ended and he started in motion a new exodus. Then he got arrested and he got beheaded, and it seems as if maybe, you know, things are falling apart, maybe it’s not coming to pass now. Jesus, however, comes into that situation and says follow me, I’ll make you fishers of men. In other words, I am going to be the great prophet; I’m going to be the Messiah, the one to bring the new exodus to completion, to inaugurate it and to consummate it, right, through my public ministry. And now it makes sense why Peter and James and Andrew and John would drop their nets and go follow this guy, because they were already ready to receive that message and to become fishers of men.” ~ Dr. Brant Pitre

18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

If we look at John’s Gospel as the backstory and supplement to this one, then we realize that this was not the first time they had met. John the Baptist had already revealed to them that Jesus was the Lamb of God and Andrew believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

“The Gospel shows the conclusions stemming from Jesus’ declaration that time is “fulfilled.” With the fulfillment of time the Kingdom of God stands at the threshold of earthly time, and it thus makes sense to devote oneself and one’s entire existence to this infallibly dawning reality. This is not something one does on his own initiative, rather, he is called to it and equipped for it by God. In this passage Jesus calls four disciples away from their worldly activities (and they one the call without grumbling) so that they can be equipped for their occupation in the Kingdom of God. They are to be fishers of men, since, after all, they know how to fish.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 163-4

So finally, another aspect from the living tradition comes from Origen of Alexandria, he’s from around 200 A.D., so he’s a lot earlier than St. Thomas Aquinas, but he points out something that I think is really important, which is why does God call fishermen? What’s the significant of choosing fishermen to be the apostles, choosing fishermen to give this prophetic mission? Why didn’t Jesus go down to the academy of the Rabbis in Jerusalem and pick a few of the best students there to be these prophets of the new exodus? Why would you go up to Galilee and get fishermen to do it? There are a couple of reasons here. First, Origen says this, this is really interesting, he says: We may see… how that religion itself… Meaning, the religion of Christianity, …grew up in a short time… this result is the more surprising, that even the teachers of it themselves neither were men of skill, nor very numerous; and yet these words are preached throughout the whole world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, adopt the doctrines of the Christian religion. From which it is no doubtful inference, that it is not by human power or might that the words of Jesus Christ come to prevail with all faith and power over the understandings and souls of all men. 3 That’s from Origen, On First Principles. So what Origen is saying here is one of the reasons God chooses lowly fishermen to bring the message of the gospel, one of the reasons he chooses so few, just 12 men, is precisely to show us that it’s divine and not human. The spread of Christianity isn’t something that is brought about by really clever human tactics, it’s brought about by the Holy Spirit of God, it’s brought about by the inspiration of God, it’s brought about by the fulfillment of prophecy. I would also add though, just in closing, as a person from South Louisiana who grew up fishing, that on a natural level, fisherman, professional fisherman like Peter and James and John and Andrew, would have certain natural qualities that would be amenable to proclaiming the gospel as their vocation. You can think here about the fact that to be a fisherman you have to have patience, right, you don’t just catch something if you’re rushing, you have to wait, you have to learn to wait. You also have to be skilled; you have to practice, right, you don’t just stumble into it and be successful. It takes years to develop a knowledge of where the fish are, how to catch them, what places to go, what places not to go, what the weather should be like, what it shouldn’t be like. I mean they’re all these details that go into fishing. It’s actually complex, and it takes time to learn it; it takes patience and it takes skill. I would also say too that, last but not least, a fisherman has to, in a since, totally rely on God. There’s nothing you can do to make the fish bite, right? I mean, the weather conditions have to be right, the natural conditions have to be right, but that’s all not in your hands, that’s in God’s hands. And so a fisherman is particularly inclined to learn how to be patient, and wait, and rely on God. And I think that’s really going to be a gift that Peter and Andrew and James and John need to utilize as they begin to spread the gospel. There going to have to realize it’s not going to be because of them, or their gifts, or their skills that the gospel spreads throughout the world. It’s going to be because of 3 Origen, On First Principles 4.1.2; trans. ANF the grace of God, and he’s only calling them to answer the vocation, answer the call, embark on the mission, and then persevere, be patient, and that God will make sure that the catch is a good one.

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