21 Jan 2018
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Last week we talked about Jesus the Rabbi, and how disciples would attach themselves to a rabbi with the intention of becoming just like that rabbi. So, to be a disciple of Jesus means to imitate him, to let him share his life with me, and to share my life with him, so that...when people encounter us, they’re encountering Jesus. The student becomes like the teacher, the disciple becomes like the rabbi.
And we see this commitment between a disciple and the rabbi in the gospel again today. Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, and right away Simon, Andrew, James, and John just left everything and followed him. Now, to us that looks extraordinary. But, at the time, it may not have been. To drop everything and dedicate one’s life to the rabbi was what you did...if you wanted to be a disciple.
But, you know, when those four fishermen started to follow Jesus that day, they didn’t follow him because they knew all about him; they didn’t know he was God in the flesh; they didn’t know he was the Christ. All they probably knew about him was that he was an up-and-coming rabbi who was making waves. Jesus’ reputation had preceded him. So that day when Jesus came walking by, they still had a lot to learn about who he really was.
But that’s how it is with us human beings. We don’t know everything. We’re constantly learning. Even (and especially!) when it comes to God, it takes time—it takes years, centuries, millennia—to even begin to understand who this God is who whispers to us and calls us to himself. Who is this person who says, “Come, follow me”?
Our reading from the Book of Jonah was written maybe 450 years before Jesus was born. And it reflects one way that people understand God. God was someone who threatened destruction if the people didn’t change their ways. And people cowered in fear at the thought of being annihilated. But, then again, at that time in history, the gods (generally speaking) weren’t always considered to be “friends” to the human race. Sometimes the gods could be pretty manipulative and tricky; the last thing you’d want is to have a god angry at you. But that’s a particular lens through which people understood God...at the time.
That doesn’t mean we should discount the Book of Jonah. It has some important truths we want to pay attention to. But it does mean we have to remember that our ancestors in the faith were still learning who God is.
Now, a couple hundred years before that, the Book of Job was written. And in that book God is actually bargaining with Satan! Really? Is that the God we worship...God who makes deals with Satan? Well, here again our ancestors in the faith were still learning about God. We all know about the Roman and Greek gods: how there was Zeus (the father of all the gods), and then his council of gods who he conversed with, and then there were the lesser gods, and finally mortal human beings (who were the play things of the gods).
At it’s through this lens—this understanding of reality—that we interpret what God is doing in the Book of Job. Satan isn’t the same Satan that Jesus talks about. Satan (in the Book of Job) is just one of the gods in the divine council. God talked to him just like Zeus talked to one of his lesser gods. Now, does that mean that our God makes deals with the devil? No...far from it. Instead, in the Book of Job we see that God is always the one in control. There’s never any chance that Satan is somehow going to triumph. And that’s true. That’s why we look at Job: to remember the truth that, no matter what happens in life, everything will turn out okay with God’s help.
Now, fast forward several centuries to Saint Paul. He says, “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out...Jesus is coming back very, very soon. The Second Coming of Christ is going to happen any day now!” And 2,000 years later, we’re still waiting. Even with Paul’s encounter with Jesus, and his almost fanatic discipleship under the Holy Spirit, he still didn’t entirely understand God’s ways. Now, he knew more than the people who wrote the Books of Job and Jonah, but he still had a ways to go in understanding this God he was following.
And so, fast forward to today. A lot of people have decided that there isn’t a God! Or, if there is, God is pretty weak and ineffective. Many people have “figured out” who God is: God is...an irrelevancy—like our appendix or our tonsils. You can get rid of them and you’ll be fine.
Others have discovered God to be like the tax-man. You just pay him your dues and then go about life as normal. For others, God is like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold, windy day; he makes you feel all warm and good inside...that’s who God is. And, of course, for some God is a tyrant; somebody you have to appease or you going to be thrown into hell—just because he can do it: God is an enemy, one who always has the upper hand.
So, where does that leave us? Is Jesus like...the tax-man? Well, I suppose, in some ways. I mean, he does ask us to follow his commandments, to take up our cross and follow him. So, he does have some expectations. But is he the tax-man? No.
Is Jesus...weak and ineffective? Well, I suppose, somewhat. When we look at the crucifix, he certainly looks pretty weak. And for all his efforts, he only ended up with two disciples at the end: his mother and John. But is Jesus weak and ineffective? No. It’s when we’re weak that we are strong. And there are about a billion and a half people who follow him today in the Catholic way of life.
Well, is Jesus like a cup of hot chocolate on a wintry day? Well again, I suppose, in some ways. When we’re hurting or lost, he certainly brings calm and comfort to those who ask for it. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” But is he more than that? Certainly. When we’ve done something wrong, or we’re not living up to our potential, he kind of pokes at our conscience. He comforts the afflicted, but he also afflicts the comfortable.
What about that whole “hell” thing...is Jesus—is God—a tyrant? No. But he is a just God who respects the free will he gave to each of us. God allows for the fact that not everybody wants to be with him; not everybody is going to find him attractive. And so, there is a “place,” there is a way of life for people who deliberately choose not to love; who choose not to be humble, who see themselves as God, as the center of the universe. There’s a place for people who refuse to share, who say, “Everything is mine, and none of it is yours.” And that place exists because...God respects our ability to choose. Is God the arbitrarily threatening God we see in the Book of Jonah? No. We’ve come a long way is understanding that that isn’t who God is. And we know it because of Jesus.
Jesus is God-in-the-flesh. It’s what we celebrate every single Christmas. If we want to know who God is, look to Jesus. After all, he’s God. He came to humanity to say, “Ok people, this is who I am. Listen to my words, watch what I do, follow my example.” And one of the easiest ways to do that is in prayer.
For instance, sit down and look at a crucifix. Imagine, if you can, being in his place. Handed over by his fellow Jews, humiliated, mocked, spat upon, stripped naked and nailed up for everybody to see, and stare at, to make fun of. Is that a tyrant, there on the cross? Is that a cup of hot chocolate? Is it the tax-man, who just sees us as a faceless number in a book? No. It’s God—it’s the epitome of love there hanging on the cross. And he let it happen for you and for me.
Or, another way to “listen, watch, and follow” what Jesus does is to sit down with Scripture. Go right to the gospels. Pick one, any one. Find a section where Jesus is doing something, or saying something. Read it, and imagine being there in that scene. What does he say? What’s the expression of his face? What are the reactions of people who hear him, who see him? Listen and watch. Pay attention to the rabbi, and trying doing what he does.
He does what’s hard. “Love your enemies.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” Speak the truth...with humility. “Be not afraid.”
For centuries—for thousands of years, humanity has wondered who our God is. And through the lens of Jesus we have our clearest vision of that. But we can only know so much from standing at a distance. And so, Jesus walks right by us and says, “Come, follow me.” Right here at Mass, Jesus appears for just a few minutes in the Eucharist. And he says, “Come, follow me. Come stay with me, open the door to me. Let me show you who I am.”
But will we open the door? If not today, don’t worry. Jesus walks by again and again. And the invitation is always there: “If you want to know who I am, ask me. Come, sit with me. Let me show you who I am.”