Popular songs, movies, and television shows love to sing or depict people swept away by the complex, unpredictable, and risky emotions associated with romantic relationships. They speak of lust and longing, of passion and dedication. The songs are correct in realizing that love is often something that happens to us rather than a reasoned choice. On the other hand, the songs and stories do not tell the whole story. They usually focus on that overwhelming feeling of infatuation, or the pain when that first bloom fades from the rose. For obsession to become genuine love involves a conscious choice to commit and remain faithful. It is the choice to trust and share life entirely with another – to choose the good of that person even above the desires of the self. It is only then, in the context of true commitment, that love can grow and bloom in new ways. At some point, the feeling must become a chosen way of life or the relationship will inevitably fail.
Today’s readings have some interesting things to say about the quality of our relationship with God. It is another mixture of compulsion and choice that looks very much like the experience of human love.
In the case of the passage from Jonah, we have a moment that intends to be humorous. In fact, many scholars believe that book of Jonah is intended to be a humorous way of revealing and altering the preconceptions of the people. The book was written for a people that had become suspicious of others and turned inward and the book gently mocks their narrow viewpoint. As we read this passage, we need to remember that the prophet Jonah, like the other biblical prophets, receives a call from God. Unlike the others, he does his best to avoid the call. He had no intention of following God’s orders to preach to Nineveh and he attempts to escape by ship. Mayhem ensues with a ferocious storm and a ride in the belly of a great fish which spits a now repentant Jonah onto the shore that he hoped so desperately to avoid. There is no escaping his mission. Throughout the story, Jonah, whose name means “Dove,” a name that suggests a peaceful, passive man, must be prodded and pushed by God to act.
Jonah finally preaches his message of doom to the fearsome great city of Nineveh and the unthinkable happens. The Ninevites respond and repent immediately. Where the prophet resisted, they put on sackcloth and turn to God. The aggressive God who prodded Jonah now demonstrates forbearance and mercy. We have to chuckle at the contrast between the hapless prophet and the responsive “enemy.” And as we chuckle, we might also see ourselves in both sides of this struggle to live a life of faith.
In addressing the Corinthians, St. Paul prods believers with regard to the passionate nature of their faith. Paul had little patience with a comfortable Christianity. The self-satisfied and self-important Corinthian Christians needed some perspective. In this passage Paul reminds them of the urgency of the call to faith. Every aspect of their lives, relationships, business, joys, and sorrows, must be transformed in light of the actions of God and God’s call of the people to faith and salvation.
In the case of the passage from Mark, we witness Jesus’ call of the first disciples. The scene begins with a note of warning as Jesus’ public ministry begins just as John the Baptist is arrested, soon to be martyred. But the most compelling part of this narrative is the rapid and total response of the called. For first century fishermen, nets are life. Without objection or questions, they are walking away from the living that feeds them. And they leave more than nets and boats, we are told that they leave their father – shocking behavior for a pious Jew. With just a few words, Mark lets us know that Jesus’ presence is overwhelming for these men. They respond in an extraordinary and unexpected way.
How did we end up as Catholics? For most of us, it is probably the product of family and upbringing. Some may have “chosen” faith as converts, although even in those cases, I am sure that each person was motivated by forces beyond their full understanding. For all of us, there is a truth that we “fall in faith.” God has chosen us for his family without any apparent worthiness on our part. While grace should inspire gratitude, it should not inspire passivity. We learn today that grace always demands a response. If our relationship with God is to grow and endure then we must receive the gift and make it our own by the choice to respond. No hesitation, no questions, no excuses – just the simple act of walking after the Lord one step at a time.