ColumnsSunday’s Word

Jonah goes to Nineveh

January 21, 2018


Jon 3:1-5, 10

Jonah goes to Nineveh

Ps 25:4-9

Teach me your ways, Lord

1 Cor 7:28-31

Time is running out

Mk 1:14-20

The call of four disciples 012118.cfm

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Call stories, in these early Sundays of ordinary time, provide a mini-seminar on what it means to be called to discipleship. Last week we were noticing how such calls often come through other persons, and—even more interestingly—often involve a second try after a false start in the wrong direction. This week we have the phenomenon of a first call followed by a second. In the cases of both Jonah and Peter, a first call is followed by a second.

We are tipped off by the story of Jonah today. The passage recounts the second call of God for the prophet to go to Nineveh and warn them. The first was two chapters earlier, at the beginning of the book, in words that are almost identical. But that time, Jonah disregarded the call. If we think of Nineveh as to the east of Judah, then we realize that when Jonah takes a boat he is heading west, where the Mediterranean sea borders the land. In other words, Jonah is doing the opposite of what he is being asked to do.

We all know the story of how a storm endangers the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard, at which time a large fish returns him to the starting point of the story. Back in Judah, he is called again, and that is today’s selection.

As for Peter, he is called from the lake, where he is pursuing his livelihood, along with his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. All are called. But in this Gospel, Peter receives a second call.

Halfway through the narrative, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answers, “the Messiah” (Mk 8:29). This is correct, as far as it goes, and with that the first half of the story is concluded. But there is more to the Messiah than Peter (and his companions) realize. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is to fulfill that role in the manner of the suffering servant, and Peter doesn’t understand that part.

That will be the subject of the next part of the story. He announces that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. Peter, who has dreams of glory concerning the Messiah, firmly disagrees, and gets into an argument with Jesus (8:32-33).

At this point, Jesus responds with a renegotiation of the call by the lake: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I imagine Peter saying that Jesus never said anything about a cross back at the beginning by the lake. Things are taking a new and somewhat alarming turn here. As a matter of fact, the disciples seem to draw back a bit after this. All the way to Jerusalem, in the next few chapters, they fail to understand the new dimensions to the call.

For Peter, the words “deny himself” have particular meaning, if we remember that later on, when he finds himself in the high priest’s courtyard, the time has come to deny himself and take up the cross, as Jesus is doing. Instead, Peter denies he knows the one inside, who is about to take up his cross. Peter gets it backward.

This failure is not permanent, of course. The Gospels picture Peter as the one who picks up the pieces after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Acts of the Apostles picture him as central in the early church. But there were some hard lessons on the way.

For reflection: Do you know of similar cases of revised call?

Notice: I will sign copies of my book, “Jesus and His Enemies: Narrative Conflict in the Four Gospels,” Feb. 6 (4 p.m.), in the Loras College Alumni Center, Ballroom A. All are welcome.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.