You know, I have to admit to a certain sympathy with Jonah. On Sunday, we heard of his call from God to go to the ancient city of Nineveh and summon the people there to repentance. (Jon 3: 1-5, 10). The passage tells us that he "made ready and went." When we read this, though, in the light of the book's two preceding chapters, we realize that this is the second time God called Jonah. On the first occasion, the prophet was anything but willing to do what God asked of him. We know how the story goes. When he first hears God call him to preach to the Ninevites, he tries to escape! He gets on a boat to a faraway destination, gets thrown overboard to be swallowed by a large fish that then spews him back out onto land. That's where the passage of Sunday picks up the thread of the story. God calls him again, with the same summons. Jonah learns there is no escaping the call of the Lord, and does what the Lord asks of him.
The desire to run from the call of the Lord is not unusual. It arises in the hearts of many of us when we experience that call as summoning us to something we do not want to do.
How do we respond to the call recorded in the Gospel passage from Sunday (Mark 1:14-20)? This is a crucial question, since we are dealing with the summons that stands at the heart of every Christian life, namely, the call to salvation in Christ.
Jesus announces the coming near, through and in him, of God's kingdom, and then stipulates the necessary response for the acceptance of his message: "repent, and believe in the good news." The call to salvation meets its requisite response when we turn to the Lord in faith and repentance. The sine qua non of the Christian life is a firm decision so to change one's life as to be separated from whatever is contrary to the divine summons (repentance), and to surrender to Christ and the supremacy of his grace (faith).
Especially in our day, marked by the exaltation of the autonomous Self, we might well be tempted to run from such a call. Encouraged by the individualism of Western society to establish ourselves as the standard of measure in all things, the idea that someone else sets the terms for the way I am to live can be difficult to accept. As Christians, though, we know very well that we do not get to follow the Lord on our own terms. He is the Lord; therefore, he leads the way.
As impossible as his terms may appear to us, there is no need to be discouraged. In his love for us, Jesus not only calls us to holiness and salvation but also makes it possible for us to respond as he wills. Notice how the Gospel passage demonstrates this at work in the response of the first persons sought out by Jesus to be his disciples. We are told that those fishermen left their nets to follow the Lord. That is to say, so ready and eager were they to follow this man, Jesus, to surrender all to him, that they left behind the lives they had constructed for themselves in order to adopt a radically new life in him. Very important to observe here is the presence of what is called the "theological passive," often used in Sacred Scripture to indicate the priority of the Lord, who acts upon the recipient. In this story of call, it is the Lord Jesus who initiates the action (we do not call ourselves to discipleship). Furthermore, it is he who will make these fishermen into "fishers of people" (we do not make ourselves disciples; we are made so by God's grace). The terms that the Lord sets for following him, faith and repentance, may seem difficult, even impossible to us. Rightly so; they are. By God's grace, though, we are made able to accept them and to live them with joy.
So, in those moments when we might be tempted to "do a Jonah" and flee, let's keep in mind that, if we are to run anywhere, it should be away from whatever is contrary to holiness and toward the Lord, who alone leads us to the fullness of life.