A Life Unfolds
Until Ash Wednesday (March 8), the Gospels of Lectionary cycle B follow Mark (1:14 to 3:6). Each of the four Gospels has distinctive literary characteristics, a particular picture of Jesus and different understandings of discipleship. Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, contains the most vivid and human portrayal of Jesus. He expresses deep emotions (which Matthew and Luke often omit): compassion, strong displeasure, surprise at disbelief, deep sighs, indignation and ignorance of when history will end. Jesus is a powerful and mysterious presence whose actions constantly elicit wonder and surprise and evoke questions such as "Who is this?" (4:41). The narrative style harmonizes with the picture of Jesusrapid scene changes with Jesus on the move, surrounded by crowds, announcing and enacting God’s reign, narrated in short, staccato sentences with constant use of the connective, "immediately."
But as the Gospel moves forward, the pace slows. After Jesus enters Jerusalem, time is measured in days; his final day is marked by hours, much like the brutal, antiseptic, execution watches so familiar at U.S. prisons. The figure, once powerful in word and deed, speaks only briefly, and his last words are, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The hands that once fed the hungry and restored life to a little girl are immobile, nailed to a cross.
Mark’s introduction of Jesus (1:14-15) is a capsule summary of his whole Gospel. Jesus arrives after John had been arrested (literally "handed over")a fate which will await Jesus himself, and his followers after his death. He proclaims the "good news of [also from] God," that is, a new privileged time (kairos), when God’s manifestation of power and care for the people (kingdom or reign) is at their doorstep. He then summons them to a change of heart, to take a new look at their lives and put their trust in the good news. This is not simply a story from the past, but a clarion call to readers.
This new beginning encompasses two prototypical events: the calling of the first disciples (1:16-20) and the confrontation with evil (1:21-28). The calling, heavily influenced by the compelling calls of prophets (e.g., Is. 6:1-13; Jer. 1:14-19), is an icon of discipleship. Jesus is not a solitary prophet but one who calls companions; he enters the lives of four people engaged in their ordinary occupations, simply says, "Follow me" (with a hint of their commission to "become fishers"), and they immediately drop everything to follow. Discipleship involves "being with" Jesus and doing the things of Jesus.
The next incident (Fourth Sunday) inaugurates the first day in the ministry of Jesus (1:21-34), comprising exorcisms and healings that crystallize John’s prediction of the arrival of the stronger one. This first story reflects contemporary Jewish thought that the advent of God’s reign would spell the defeat of evil, which is personified in an array of demons and unclean spirits. From the rebuke of the demon and its expulsion by a single command, readers know that Jesus, who will be charged with being in league with Satan and who is condemned as a blasphemer, is the victor over evilwhich in turn underscores the authority of Jesus as teacher. His word is so powerful that people abandon their occupations and follow him, and even demonic powers cower before it.
The Old Testament readings today, as on virtually every Sunday, are determined by the Gospel. The brief reading from Jonah describes the second call of Jonah to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Reading the whole book is rewarding, since Jonah, rare among biblical narratives, garbs a profound theological message in humor. Jonah is called to go east to preach to the Ninevites, but rather heads as far west as possible, boards a ship, only to be thrown overboard in a great storm, but is miraculously coughed up on dry land by the most famous whale in history (again, somewhat comedic, since sea monsters are supposed to gobble people up, Jer. 51:34).
When Jonah finally follows God’s command, all of Nineveh repents; even the cattle are clothed in sackclothwhich saddens Jonah since any self-respecting prophet would expect Nineveh to be destroyed (Nah. 1:1-4). God then instructs Jonah (and ourselves) that universal divine mercy embraces even the most feared enemy. Another prophetic motif is sounded by Dt. 18:15-20 (Fourth Sunday) with the expectation of a prophet like Moses, who was not only a great lawgiver, but a figure of power. Like Jesus, he confronted the forces of evil, liberated his people from slavery, and enacted a covenant in blood (Ex. 24:8; Mk. 14:24).
These readings offer a kaleidoscope of themes: the graphic realism of Mark’s Jesus; the sudden coming of God into ordinary human life; the challenge for the church to be prophetic, and a "community of disciples" (Pope John Paul II); the confrontation of God’s reign with the anti-reign of evil. Yet, viewed through the prism of Jonah, the deeper message may be that conversion, community and confrontation with evil, are ultimately God’s doingachieved in startling ways.