3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 22, 2006
Most homilies preached in Roman Catholic churches today will probably focus on repentance. After all, that is what Jonah preaches to the Ninevites; it is the first thing Jesus says in the gospel (“Repent and believe in the gospel.”); it is what St. Paul has in mind when he warns the Corinthians that the whole world in its present form is passing away. In the book of Jonah, even God “repented of the evil he had planned.” Everybody seems to be admonishing us today. Many preachers still find it exhilarating to chastize congregations. For myself, I just found it depressing! And I do not want to make you feel depressed.
I remember learning a lesson from the Jesuit scholastics who were my high school debate coaches. It was then I heard for the first time that, when addressing any audience, people will most often forget what you actually say to them; they will usually forget how you said it to them too (beware of even sophisticated Power Point demonstrations). But people will always remember how you made them feel as they listened to you.
So I didn’t want to make you feel depressed. But then it dawned on me that neither does God want to depress us–even with talk of repentance. God actually likes us, and that’s a message we don’t hear often enough in homilies. Ironically, that is God’s primary message to us and to all creation. I like you! British theologian, James Alison, captures this sentiment well just in the title of one of his recent books. It is called: On Being Liked. Many of us prefer the word love, but love can be overused (especially in religious contexts) and love can be very difficult to discern. On the other hand, we almost always know when someone likes us. It is delightful and obvious. And God likes us. That’s God’s job, really! So how often do you think about being really liked and appreciated–especially by God?
The gifted philosopher and psychologist from across the Charles, William James, wrote this toward the end of his life. “I now perceive one immense omission in my psychology–the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
We all need to be appreciated. And, although we don’t think about it often, no one appreciates us more than God. There are some wonderful illustrations of how God makes people feel, and how God appreciates people in today’s readings.
Let’s start with poor Jonah. By the time we get to today’s third chapter in his saga, Jonah is painfully aware that God sometimes asks very strange things of those whom God loves. God asks Jonah to depress the whole town of Nineveh by demanding their immediate repentance. Jonah has already said no to God’s request. Depress them yourself, he says! As a consequence, he has already been buffeted by a terrible storm at sea; he has been thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale, and spit-up on a deserted shore. Jonah is having a very bad hair-day!
And now finally and still reluctantly, in today’s reading, Jonah is asked to start preaching in Nineveh, and what’s worse, it’s still a very depressing and upsetting message. He is only one-third of the way into town when, lo and behold, everybody starts listening to him. Instead of stoning him or throwing him back into the sea, they actually listen and believe that Jonah speaks God’s word to them. Jonah must have been absolutely shocked. They like me!
Jonah learns that sometimes God does ask very strange things of us, but sometimes it works. Sometimes success beyond your imaginings is what God really wants. People really appreciated Jonah. And even God is delighted.
But also buried in this short passage from Jonah’s book, is what has always struck me as one of the more interesting short phrases in all of our scriptures. In our translation this morning it says: “God repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them.” Other translations get closer to the original intent and more direct: “God changed his mind.” How’s that for different? God changed his mind. And all the people of Nineveh, together with Jonah himself, come to realize the shocking truth that God changes and that sometimes God changes precisely because of what we do with each other and what we say to each other.
Now if some of you remember the end of Jonah’s story, he actually gets depressed himself and he gets very angry with God for changing his mind. Jonah actually wanted to see the destruction and depression. But that’s another homily for another day.
Let’s turn to the gospel today. If for a moment you can put yourself in the shoes of those fishermen, Peter or Andrew or the Zebedee boys, James and John, imagine their surprise at being called off the docks by this strange and itinerant preacher who says they will now fish for people. God does often ask the strangest things. Just sit for a moment with these four uneducated, probably mostly illiterate, fishermen as they find themselves just appreciated–perhaps for the first time in their lives–just appreciated and chosen to become close followers of their Lord.
Imagine them astonished saying to themselves: Jesus likes me. And he doesn’t even know me yet! He likes me and is asking me to follow him.
That’s what Jesus offers Peter and Andrew, James and John. In calling them he says “I appreciate you–just as you are, just where you sit, just because you are you.” And they must have been shocked, indeed! Shocked at the graciousness of it all, shocked at the scariness of it all, shocked at the strangeness of it all. And they had no idea where it would all lead.
Sound familiar? Neither do you or I, my brothers and sisters, have any idea where this same invitation will lead. Can you let yourself hear the same strange invitation and feel the same surprise, the same delight, of knowing you are just appreciated for who you are. I think William James is right: the deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated. And finally no one can satisfy that longing more than God. If we will just stop being so depressing with each other!
So, today, by all means, repent! Repent of whatever you need to repent! We all do need to repent–even God, apparently. But do not miss the more subtle and more powerful message here. God does not want to leave you feeling depressed. Neither do I. So repent, but even more importantly, listen to the second half of Jesus’ call: believe in the Good News. God likes you! God appreciates you just as you are. And God says to you too, come follow me–and, trust me, it can be delight-full. Peace!
Delivered at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church
Chestnut Hill, MA