The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (email@example.com) 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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
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
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
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
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.