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Introduction To The Scripture For The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year B
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year B


JONAH 3:1-5,10                         One should read the whole parable 
of Jonah at one sitting.  Most people remember only the story of the fish 
that swallowed Jonah.  That was, in fact, a metaphor for Israel’s exile in 
Babylon.  Written as a missionary tract, the story calls Israel to a 
mission of proclaiming God's saving goodness and mercy among all peoples - 
even Israel's worst enemies in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.  The story 
ends with Jonah getting his come-uppance for his too narrow belief that 
divine compassion extends only to Israel.


PSALM 62:5-12                          This poem presents the same 
elements of universal justice and compassion because of the psalmist’s 
confident trust in God's steadfast love.  


1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31                  In this brief passage Paul appears 
to counter the traditional view of Christian family values.  But is he 
really suggesting that marriage is not the best thing for young men and 
women in the Corinthian congregation?  The key words are: "...the 
appointed time has grown short...." At this stage in his ministry, Paul 
was looking for the imminent return of Christ in glory.  He wanted all 
faithful people to give themselves wholly to preparing for that event.  
Marriage and family responsibilities would detract from their commitment.  
So also would worldly possessions.  It was excessive attachment to these 
relationships, not their existence, which Paul decried.  


MARK 1:14-20                           Mark's version of Jesus calling his 
first disciples is quite different from what we read last week in John 
1:35-51.  John the Baptist had been imprisoned, but Jesus took his place 
preaching repentance and the good news of God's salvation.  The calling of 
the four fishermen occurred entirely on Jesus' initiative, not as a result 
of their curiosity.  This was in keeping with Mark's presentation of 
Jesus' messiahship being hidden until Peter's declaration toward the end 
of Jesus' ministry (Mark 8:27-33).  However they were called, the 
disciples' response was immediate.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

JONAH 3:1-5,10   It would be instructive to set aside the other readings 
and spend the whole of the time for scripture during worship in reading 
aloud this remarkable tale.  The prayer of Jonah in 2:2-9 could be omitted 
in such a reading.  Scholars regard it as a later addition to the original 
story because it interrupts the natural flow of the narrative and 
represents the very opposite view of the basic story.  On the other hand, 
the prayer mocks Israelite piety exemplified in Jonah whose sole concern 
was his own reputation for the accuracy of prediction or a restriction of 
divine compassion to Israel alone.  

There is a delightful air of exaggeration about the details of Jonah's 
experiences.  Ancient Nineveh (near Mosul in modern Iraq) was not so large 
as to take three days to walk across.  The Assyrian empire, of course, was 
much larger.  Although no accurate estimate has been made of the date of 
the writing of the book, it is believed to have been long after the fall 
of Assyria to the Babylonians (ca. 610 BCE) and the exile of the 6th 
century BCE.  The exaggeration serves to heighten the threat to Israel's 
national existence in the same way that the exile did.  The storm and the 
fish that swallowed Jonah are symbolic of the exile and another 
exaggeration of the prophet's experience.  He himself represents those in 
Israel who fear and hate their neighbors.  The ironic twist of the story 
comes in 3:10 when the God of Israel spared Israel's worst enemies who 
they repented after Jonah had preached to them.

So "what kind of a God is this?" becomes the fundamental issue of the 
story.  The whole tenor of the narrative is that of a midrash, a story 
told to interpret biblical texts which raise similar questions.  Three 
such texts existed in the later prophetic literature: Exodus 34:6; Numbers 
23:19 and Ezekiel 18:23.  Is divine mercy more powerful than justice? Can 
a deity actually repent and change earlier decisions? Does Yahweh's 
preference to grant life rather than death extend beyond the border of 
Israel, the chosen people?

Jonah represents the element in post-exilic Israel which turned inward and 
became extremely exclusivist, nationalistic and xenophobic.  This attitude 
contrasted with the universalism of Second Isaiah, but found also in 
Exodus 14:31; 1 Kings 19; Jeremiah 26 and 36; and Psalm 139.  Prophetic 
voices had always uttered judgment against Israel or other foreign 
nations.  Usually they had extended the hope of Yahweh's mercy for those 
Israelites who remained faithful or repented.  Generally speaking, they 
predicted the destruction of Israel's oppressors.  Like the Book of Ruth, 
Jonah widens the embrace of divine mercy to all peoples, even those like 
Assyria who had brutally oppressed Israel at different periods of its 
history.
                                        
How can Christian gospel be proclaimed from this text? The Old Testament 
is our book too, not merely "the Hebrew scriptures." The compassionate God 
of Jonah is still Lord of history.  Warring nation states on both sides of 
20th century conflicts sought to use this God as a means of propaganda to 
judge the conduct of their enemies.  Some claimants to Christian faith 
still hold to a belief in a violent outcome of a final Armageddon in which 
divine forces will aid in the victory over other "evil empires." 

But does God not see the history of our times through the eyes of Jesus 
Christ? Are not the gifts of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5:22-23 
the spiritual values that will determine the ultimate end of our present 
world struggles? If we were in the Ninevites position, would we prefer the 
end of the story Jonah predicted or the end as it is written? Could not 
the mood of this anonymous poem posted a few years ago to Ralph Milton's 
e-zine RUMORS (rumors@joinhands.com) be the moving spirit of our times? It 
seems to say what the Book of Jonah was also saying.

Ships sail east and ships sail west
While the self same breezes blow:
It's the set of the sails and not the gales
That determines the way they go.

Like the winds of the sea is the way of fate
As we journey along through life.
It's the set of the soul that determines the goal
And not the calm or the strife.


PSALM 62:5-12   The only explanation for beginning the reading of this 
psalm at vs. 5 is that, according to scholars, it had become corrupted in 
some way during transmission; its original beginning lost and replaced by 
a repetition of vss. 5-6 as vss. 1-2.  

The poem has some relationship with the vocabulary and mood of Qoheleth
(Ecclesiastes) and the later Wisdom literature of the Intertestamental 
period.  This is especially noticeable in vs. 9.  At the same time, it 
also expresses a sincere confidence in God using traditional phrases of 
the Psalter such as "my rock and my salvation"; "my fortress" and "a 
refuge".

The psalm goes well with the reading from Jonah because it presents the 
same elements of universal justice (vss. 9-10) and compassion based on the 
psalmist's confident trust in God's steadfast love (vss. 11-12).  


1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31   In this brief passage Paul appears to counter the 
traditional view of both Jewish and Christian family values by promoting 
celibacy within marriage as well as outside of it.  But is he really 
suggesting that marriage is not the best thing for young men and women in 
the Corinthian congregation? 
  
The key words are: "...the appointed time has grown short...."  At this 
stage in his ministry, Paul was looking for the imminent return of Christ 
in glory.  He wanted all faithful people to give themselves wholly to 
preparing for that event.  Marriage and family responsibilities would 
detract from their commitment.  So also would worldly possessions.  It was 
excessive attachment to these relationships, not their existence, which 
Paul decried.  

Celibacy had received very little mention in the scriptures.  For Jews it 
was limited to those who through injury could not function sexually (Deut.  
23:1) and those who through a congenital condition, violence or choice had 
become eunuchs (Matt.  19:12).  As far as we know, Paul was not married, 
which was unusual for a rabbi; or his spouse had died, a not uncommon 
reality in those days of poor prenatal and postnatal health care.  

Christian celibacy is thought to have derived from the Essene sect of 
Qumran.  Philo of Alexandria and Josephus both believed that the Essenes 
did not marry or practiced celibacy in marriage.  A closer examination of 
the cemetery at Qumran and of the Dead Sea Scrolls has revealed, however, 
that while marriage was restricted, it was by no means banned by the sect.  
The adoption of celibacy for clergy in the post-apostolic church depended 
more on dogmatic theological attitudes to sexuality by church authorities 
influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophy and Gnosticism.  As the expectation 
of the Parousia receded, celibacy was still praised and marriage 
tolerated.  The triumph of the orthodox Trinitarian formula in the 4th 
century increased the cult of the Virgin Mary and led to the belief that 
sexuality and marriage, while permitted, were less spiritually valuable 
than celibacy for both men and women.  However, this did not become a 
requirement for western clergy and religious vocations until the 12th 
century.  It was never adopted by the Eastern Church and had not been 
effectively enforced in the Western Latin Church until the 19th century.


MARK 1:14-20   Mark's version of Jesus calling his first disciples is 
quite different from what we read in John 1:35-51.  John the Baptist had 
been imprisoned by Herod Antipas.  Jesus immediately took his place 
preaching repentance and the good news of God's salvation.  (1:14) 

The calling of the four fishermen occurred entirely on Jesus' initiative, 
not as John appears to say (John 1:35-51), due to of their curiosity.  
This was in keeping with Mark's presentation of Jesus' Messiahship being 
hidden until Peter's declaration toward the end of Jesus' ministry (Mark 
8:27-33).  However they were called, the disciples' response was 
immediate.  

Let's face it, this has always been a problem because the decision of the 
four fishermen seems so irrational.  The call of the four and their 
instantaneous response was intended, not to report an historical event, 
but to encourage faith and to set an example for others to follow.  It has 
succeeded remarkably in doing so, witness the frequency with which the 
story has been used in evangelical preaching and hymnody.  In telling of 
their call in this way, Mark appears to be saying that these fishermen are 
typical true believers, not church officials as the later institution 
regarded them.

In a helpful article in *The Oxford Companion to the Bible*, (Oxford 
University Press, 1993. 138-9) Professor J. Andrew Overman, of the 
University of Rochester, NY, points out that for Mark the disciples are 
"agents of instruction for the author, but as negative examples.  They 
teach the audience or readers, but mostly through the things they do wrong 
or fail to understand." This provides Mark with opportunities to explain 
Jesus' mission.  "Discipleship in Mark involves fear, doubt and 
suffering....  (They) never fully understand and never quite overcome 
their fear and apprehension."

If this be so, then the immediate response of the four fishermen was quite 
uncharacteristic.  They did not hesitate at all when Jesus invited them to 
follow him and "fish for people." But that is often the case with 
discipleship, isn't it? We begin with immediate enthusiastic acceptance of 
the invitation.  Subsequent experience knocks that out of us very quickly.  
The inspiration of the moment is easily stifled and a sense of spiritual 
boredom soon overwhelms us.  (Cf.  The parable of the sower and seed - 
Mark 4:3-9.) Compare also a modern instance, of all the thousands who over 
the past half century responded to Billy Graham's altar calls, how many 
have maintained their initial commitment? By introducing the four 
disciples this early in his narrative, Mark is setting up just such a 
situation to teach his audience how difficult discipleship really is when 
lived out in the real world with only faith to carry them.

Remember too, that Mark wrote in the 60s or early 70s CE when Christian 
discipleship had become exceedingly costly in Rome, for both Jews and 
Gentiles.  The gospel may well have been written soon after the deaths of 
both Peter and Paul during Emperor Nero's persecution.  He blamed the 
Christians for burning the city, a crime of which he himself was guilty.  
If Mark wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews would also 
have been in grave danger.  At such times who would have been willing to 
don the shoes of the four fishermen, humble Jews from Galilee?

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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