Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.5-end; Hebrews 9.24-end; Mark 1.14-20
Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
RETURNING to the call of the first disciples, after weeks of reading about them as Jesus’s companions through the whole course of his ministry, seems illogical at first, but only at first. In fact, this opening event in Mark’s Gospel is also the end of the story: “The Kingdom of God has come near,” and God’s people are being called to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.15).
Perhaps Mark intends his readers to make an initial connection between the coming of the Kingdom and the end of the exile of the Jewish people, gathered, in Jeremiah’s image, like fish in a net (Jeremiah 16.16).
The later insights into the disciples as followers build up a picture of the slow and sometimes painful way in which the Kingdom dawns on those who must take its message further after Jesus’s death. These introductory verses give the essential information. Andrew, Simon, James, and John are fishermen in profitable employment. Luke tells us that they were business partners (Luke 5.10). The sons of Zebedee could afford to hire assistants, and this makes it possible for them to leave their father to set off with Jesus (Mark 1.20).
That almost makes them sound responsible, but they are about to face situations where normal family relationships are called into question, and treated with seeming callousness. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus asks, as his family come looking for him, hoping to stop him from his mad course (Mark 3.21-33).
The answer dissolves blood ties, and claims anyone who “does the will of God” as a brother, or sister or mother (Mark 3.35). What this means is made clearer when Peter scolds Jesus for talking about his death: it is taking up the cross to follow, without any thought for self-preservation (Mark 8.34-35). And, by then, it is becoming too late to turn back.
Dismayed by Jesus’s reflections on the rich young man, Peter points out that the disciples have left everything for his sake (Mark 10.23-28). Jesus’s reply is ambiguous. There is no doubt that they will be rewarded in the “age to come”, but, in this world, the rewards for leaving “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children” may be measured in persecutions (Mark 10.29-31).
Where is the hope in this? Jesus is offering those who choose to travel with him something bigger than the security of their immediate families and steady employment. They are being drawn into a larger family, in which the God whom Jesus calls “Father” is father to all (Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.6, John 20.17).
All the healings, casting out of evil spirits, and feeding of the hungry, without restriction of race or orthodoxy, create a picture of this God: always longing for the wholeness of each person, always ready to respond to a reciprocal longing for an enduring relationship on the part of those who come to Jesus (Mark 5.34, 7.29, 9.24, 10.52).
It is odd to read the account of the conversion of Nineveh (Jonah 3.1-5, 10) against this image; for it is precisely God’s mercy that disappoints this unusual prophet. Jonah has disobeyed the command to go to Nineveh once, fled from the Lord, and undergone many adventures in consequence, coming close to death (Jonah 2).
Now, summoned again to warn the wicked Ninevites of God’s impending judgement, he achieves almost instantaneous results. By the time he is a third of the way across the city, the King has commanded universal and repentance, and everyone (even animals) is fasting and in sackcloth (Jonah 3.7-8).
The King is acting in the hope that God may “change his mind” (Jonah 3.9). This is exactly what displeases Jonah (Jonah 4.1). An angry God, it seems, would be better than an inconsistent God, and how embarrassing it is for a prophet who has only one oracular line in the whole book (Jonah 3.4) to be proved wrong.
Jonah must learn through further embarrassments that it is God’s mercy that is the truly characteristic thing about him (Jonah 4.5-11), and that care for the creatures who have not learned to know him trumps a reputation for prophetic accuracy. God is not disconcerted, and there is no need for Jonah to be shamefaced.