At first sight everything looks quite positive in our first reading from the Book of Jonah and our gospel passage from Mark. Jonah is faithfully preaching a message of repentance and the people of Nineveh hear this call and turn from their evil ways. Similarly, the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John hear the call of Jesus and leave everything to follow him. But there is more to both stories.
It turns out that Jonah was not very eager to become a prophet and in the famous story recounted in the Book of Jonah, he tries to flee from God’s call. Only after he is thrown over-board and swallowed by a great fish does Jonah see the error of his ways, reluctantly agreeing to preach God’s message of repentance in Nineveh. Even then, he seems half-hearted in his preaching and becomes rather put out about God’s change of mind, when God decides not to bring calamity upon the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4:1).
While the fishermen that Jesus calls in Mark’s Gospel make a better start of things, we know that they and the other disciples called by Jesus end up being complete failures. They betray him (Judas), deny him (Peter), and in the case of the others at Jesus’ arrest, the evangelist Mark leaves us with a haunting phrase: “They all left him and fled” (Mk 14: 50). In fact, the young man who runs away naked during Jesus’ arrest points out starkly how things have changed: the same disciples who were eager to leave everything to follow Jesus are now leaving everything to get away from him!
Perhaps we see some of ourselves in the faithlessness of Jonah and the disciples. We know that God calls us, and although we respond generously at times, we also recognize that we are not always the faithful disciples that we should be. There is a beautiful passage in the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Resurrection that addresses this situation of failure directly: “We experience our nothingness without God. We know the misery of our inherited weakness and the corruption which results from our personal sins. But this knowledge leads to a new experience of God’s love because he is ready to forgive and to come to our aid” (art. 1).
This is the experience of Jonah who continued to be loved by God even when he was angry about God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh. This is the experience of the disciples, who in the face of their failures encountered the Risen Lord and his words of forgiveness and reconciliation: “Peace be with you.” This is the experience of each Christian who comes to know the transforming power of God’s love in the face of his or her own unworthiness. Despite our shortcomings, God is always faithful in love for us. It is this experience that has the potential to transform us, in turn, into people of forgiveness and love.