Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Theme:   The God of Second Chances

One of the favourite aphorisms of a former priest companion of mine was: ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression.’  While obviously true, it is not very encouraging! Fortunately, our God is a God of second chances rather than of first impressions, as today’s readings make clear. Our first reading is taken from one of the shortest and most fascinating books of the Bible – The Book of Jonah. Jonah is an Israelite prophet sent by God to preach to the Gentiles of Nineveh (the modern-day city of Mosul in Northern Iraq), a people hated by the Jews, and with a well-deserved reputation for wickedness (cf. Jon 1:2). Jonah’s message takes the form of a threat: ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed’ (Jonah 3:3). Fortunately, the people of Nineveh repent their evil behaviour and God withdraws his threat. He is prepared to give them a second chance, as the King of Nineveh surmises: ‘Who knows if God will not change his mind and relent, if he will not renounce his burning wrath, so that we do not perish’ (Jon 3:9).

In the story, it is not only the people of Nineveh to whom God gives a second chance. Jonah is also given a second chance to prove himself an obedient and worthy prophet of the Lord. When he first receives God’s command to preach to the Ninevites, he refuses to obey and he runs away.  He heads off in the opposite direction to Nineveh and boards a ship heading for Spain. Perhaps many of us, like Jonah, have felt like running away when God called us to undertake a difficult or challenging mission. Anyhow, after a series of adventures (or rather misadventures!), including being swallowed by a whale, Jonah realises he cannot escape from God. He repents, and the Word of God is addressed to him a second time: ‘Up, Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to them as I told you to’ (Jon 3:2). Jonah is given another chance, and this time he obeys.

To his surprise and annoyance, the Ninevites repent. And God changes his mind and does not destroy the city. Everyone is happy, except Jonah. He is angry and depressed. He feels that God has made him look foolish by not destroying Nineveh. Yet, even in his anger, Jonah identifies the compassionate and forgiving nature of the God he serves: ‘I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil’ (Jonah 4:2). Hopefully, he will eventually learn to open his heart more fully to this God and live accordingly. The significance of the story of Jonah is captured in the following Hebrew prayer recited by Jews on the feast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement):

‘Lord you are revealed in the story of Jonah, and we relate its meaning to ourselves; for Nineveh is the repentant world, and we are Israel, its unwilling prophet. You have chosen us to know and love you, and this knowledge is our glory, and this love is our burden…By it, you reveal our kinship to friend and foe, our duty to those who love us, and to those who hate us; our task in a world where everything and everyone is your work. If we are not for others, we are not for Israel. It is for us to bring the prisoner freedom, to give the homeless refuge, and the starving food. It is for us to sow the seed of friendship on unfriendly soil, to reconcile enemies, and bring redemption to our oppressors.

In light of the horrific war being waged currently by Israel on the people of Gaza there must be many Jews who today would recite this prayer with a sense of great unease.  It is a prayer that expresses the core of the good news proclaimed by Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News’ (Mk 1:15). God’s Kingdom is about freeing prisoners, providing refuge for the homeless and food for the starving. It is about sowing the seeds of friendship everywhere; reconciling enemies and loving even those who hate us. But to embrace God’s kingdom – his vision for our world – we must first turn out back on hatred and violence. We must repent.

 The call to repentance may not seem to be good news, but this is because we have too negative or limited an understanding of what it means. Yes, it does mean recognising that all is not well with us, or with the kind of world we are creating. It means acknowledging that we have made bad choices and messed up our lives and the lives of those around us. But it also means realising we are not destined for disaster, that God is always ready to give us a second chance, and that, in the sunshine of his smile, we can turn our lives around – individually and collectively. It means that we can live in a new way, freed from the endless cycle of hatred and violence. In other words, we can live as God’s children for that is what we are. This is surely good news. No matter how often we may have failed in the past, we can always begin again. I end with the hopeful words of the Kerry poet, Brendan Kennelly:

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending,
that always seems about to give in,
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below. 


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