Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message. Check.
The people of Nineveh hear the message, respond with repentance and a fast. Check. God, in turn, reverses course and does not bring upon them the proclaimed calamity. Check. No conflict. No questions. No complaining, negotiating or bargaining. This selection from Jonah would make for a boring movie or novel. Everything is so neat and buttoned up. Everyone does what is right and good. Just like in your experience, right?
Then the Gospel lesson for this week: Jesus goes to Galilee. Check. He proclaims the good news of God. Check. He tells Simon and Andrew to follow him and they do. Check. Check. Same goes for Zebedee’s sons, James and John. Check. Check. No conflict. No questions. No complaining, negotiating or bargaining. Again, not much of a plot here. Flat characters. Boring. Everything is so neat and buttoned up. Everyone does what is right and good. Just like in your experience, right?
These call stories in Jonah and Mark follow a typical pattern, in some ways. But in other ways, they do not. We don’t get Jeremiah’s pushback about being too young or Moses’ claim he doesn’t talk well. No one in these pericopes worries about being unworthy or ill equipped. God calls, they go. Is the point of these two lectionary readings to make us feel like lesser disciples? Is the point akin to the one made by our parents when they asked us why we couldn’t be more like our brother or sister or cousin? Your brother never did that when he was your age. Your baby cousin can manage to sit through church. Simon and Andrew left their nets immediately and followed. What? You can’t even give up chocolate for Lent? You can’t manage to set aside an hour for worship each week? Tithe? James and John left their father behind in the boat, for God’s sake. Really!
But what about the rest of the story as Paul Harvey used to say. Take note of that caveat in Jonah 3:1. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Sing it with Louis Armstrong:
Now the Lord made a whale, long and wide.
Lord, Lord, wasn’t that a fish?
And he swallowed up Jonah, hair and hide.
Lord, Lord, wasn’t that a fish?
Mmm, Lord, mmm, Lord.
And let’s not forget what happened after Jonah’s aquatic adventure and after his prophecy to Nineveh. He got mad that God dialed back the divine wrath. I wonder if he thought that given God’s character of mercy and steadfast love, God was going to relent regardless of Jonah’s shouting and regardless of the people’s repentance. Jonah seems to say: “Why in the world did you put me through this, God? If you are going to make me cry out judgment, at least follow through with it!” (How does my brother, Jonah, look now, God?)
Then there is the rest of the story of the disciples in Mark. Keep in mind we are only in chapter one and these fisherfolk have just started their Jesus journey. Jesus will ask them why they have such little faith. Those eager followers will seek to send away the hungry and children alike. Peter will get that harsh rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me Satan!” James and John, the very ones who dropped their nets like hot potatoes, will request a reward for their efforts, wanting to sit at Jesus’ left and right. Peter, James and John, three of the four of chapter one, will fall asleep when Jesus, deeply agitated and in need of them, asks them to keep awake. Oh, and Peter will deny Jesus thrice. Everyone does what is right and good. Not so much. Just like in your experience, right?
Perhaps the point of this call narrative is not so much to show us how much we pale in comparison to the spiritual greats of the Bible, but to help us understand that even our fervent faithfulness will falter and God uses us anyway. The rest of the story is an important part of these stories.
Jonah does what God tells him to do. Sometimes. Simon and Andrew, James and John eagerly drop everything and follow Jesus. Sometimes. Discipleship is a one step forward, two step back sort of endeavor. The inspiration we can derive from an obedient Jonah and wildly, inexplicably responsive fishermen is one of hope knowing that our dutifulness and fervor, even if intermittent, is useful and allows God to work even if such demonstrations of piety or prophecy aren’t consistent.
We, too, will get angry at God and hope those Ninevites get their comeuppance. (It will feel so good to say “I told you so!”) We, too, will want some divine compensation when we feel as if we sacrificed something on God’s behalf. We, too, will send away the hungry, dismiss the vulnerable, fall asleep when staying awake is critical and deny Jesus three times (or more). And yet, mad as Jonah may be about it, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. We may bemoan that Godly character when it spares those we wish would get what they had coming, but we sure do celebrate it when extended to us.
We can look to Jonah, post-big-fish, pre-wishing-to-die, and we can admire the immediate and total come-to-Jesus moment of Simon and Andrew, James and John, but we should not imagine that their story of faith is all that different from our own. Obedience and recalcitrance. Praise and complaint. Faithfulness and apostasy. Service and selfishness. Awake and asleep. Hospitable and withholding. Saint and sinner. Human, yet called beloved by God.
No one does what is right and good all the time. Rarely are things neat and buttoned up. Often there are questions. Usually there is conflict. Almost always there is complaining, negotiating, bargaining. Isn’t this your experience? It certainly is mine. And yet, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing, we can be bold to drop our nets and follow. Imperfectly. Sometimes. Trusting that when we can’t or don’t or won’t, God won’t abandon us but instead will meet us where we are, give us some shade for a time, patiently teach us and, in the end, forgive and redeem us.
- Have you had seasons of eager discipleship when you dropped your nets and followed? What about times when you fell asleep when Jesus needed you most?
- How do you think Zebedee felt about James and John taking off and leaving him behind with the family business? Are there times that faithfulness to Jesus puts us at odds with responsibilities to family and friends?
- What are some skills that fishermen and fisherwomen have that might be useful to Christian discipleship?
- Take a look at other biblical passages that mention fish, fishing or nets. For example: Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 47:10 and Matthew 13:47. Notice any consistent themes? Marked differences?
- Could it be that Simon, Andrew, James and John were happy to leave their work and follow Jesus? Are there days you wish Jesus would say: “Leave everything and follow me”?
- If you aren’t called to drop everything and follow Jesus, what smaller things might you be called to drop or stop in order to follow Jesus more closely or better?
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