Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time | Year B | January 21, 2024
Today we hear Jesus call the fishermen by the sea of Galilee, saying “come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” combined with the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. The common theme is obviously big fish! …fishing for men that is. Both readings give us a vivid example of God calling ordinary people to participate in His mission of mercy in the world, and their response His invitation. The readings today challenge us once again to repentance, conversion, and discipleship.
The story of Jonah from the O.T. is very interesting. The older I get, the more I can identify with Jonah. Jonah is the reluctant prophet. Remember, he did not want to go to Nineveh to preach God’s Word to them. He got on a boat and headed 180 degree in the opposite direction. And who can blame him? The Ninevites were Israel’s archenemies. They were known for their cruelty, they didn’t crucify their enemies like the Romans, they just impaled their enemies on tall wooden stakes. Jonah did not want to preach to them; he genuinely feared for his life. It would be like today if God asked one of us to go speak to Russia or Syria or Congress. But persuaded by three days in the belly of the whale, he went to the city and warned the inhabitants of God’s coming wrath. By the way, the text doesn’t say Jonah was alive in the belly of the whale (or literally “great fish”). He was probably dead! Which explains why Jesus said “no sign shall be given this generation except the sign of Jonah.” (Mt. 16:4) The sign of Jonah that Jesus referred to was the resurrection from the dead.
In any event, Jonah was a powerful prophet! The people of Nineveh responded, amazingly, and repented. They heard God’s message and turned away from their evil ways. They fasted, notice that. We need to add more fasting to our prayers; and maybe a few more ashes. And God did not destroy them, but had mercy on them. That is always what God wants. His desire is to show mercy to all, to reconcile people to Himself. This is the mercy of God revealed in the O. T. This is what we should always want also.
But human nature being what it is, we do not always repent, and we do not always rejoice when others repent. Sometimes we secretly desire justice, not mercy. If you recall, Jonah became very angry when God did not destroy the Ninevites. He really wanted them to get what was coming to them, as he saw it. Sometimes when I see all problems in the world, I think, “Well, perhaps we deserve it. Maybe we are only getting what is coming to us.” I find myself admiring the Equalizer on TV. (Or the Punisher). But then I have to stop and say no, I am a Christian, my job is to proclaim God’s mercy and forgiveness, not judgment. We must always hope that people will turn away from their sins and follow Jesus, for by His grace, we are saved. At the same time, we are called to put our houses in order, for the time is short it says in the second reading. The world in its present form is passing away. I think that is a reminder to us that we are just passing through—life is short, and we must not become so attached to things in this life that we forget about heaven. Christians are called to be detached from their possessions. Beware lest your possessions possess you.
The Apostles leave everything behind and follow Jesus in the Gospel reading today. Simon and Andrew, James and John, demonstrate by their actions how important the kingdom of God is and how we should respond to God’s call, by literally walking away from their nets, their boats, even their relatives to follow Jesus. We must be willing to walk away from our phones, our laptops, maybe a relationship that is not centered in God, we are called to let go of anything that would hinder us from responding to the call to holiness in our lives.
The call to follow Jesus is not just a call to give something up, but a call to take on a new mission. “Come, and I will make you fishers of men.” By the way, the phrase “fisher of men” was not completely new. In the O.T. book of Jeremiah, it was prophesied that God would regather His people after the great exile. God said through Jeremiah: “I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them…” (Jeremiah 16:14-16). To be a good disciple, we need some of the qualities of a fisherman. Many scholars have noticed the same qualities that make for a good fisherman make for a good evangelist as well. What are these qualities?
- First fishing requires patience. You must learn to wait for the fish to take the bait. If we are restless and make lots of noise, we never catch anything, but simply scare people away. God works on his own timetable, and this calls for great calm, silence, and patience.
- Perseverance. We must not get discouraged if nothing happens, but try again—and again, for as long as necessary. The annual March for Life is a good example of this. It took 50 years for the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in all 50 states to be overturned in June of 2022. It is easy to get discouraged after so long, but the battle for life continues, because love perseveres.
- Courage. Fisherman in ancient times had to risk storm and the fury of the waves as they ventured their small boats into the sea. Sometimes there is danger in sharing the faith. To be good fisherman is to be willing to brave the storm, to put their reputation on the line, or face a squall of opposition without giving up.
Jesus does not ask us to do anything He has not already done himself. He knows all about the difficulties and sacrifice of being faithful to God in this world. He does not send us on our own but says “come, follow me.” He is always with us. God, help us to respond to your call in our lives.
—Fr. James M. Glass