3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 24:4-6,7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Picture: cc *Tom [luckytom]
Sisters and brothers, do you ever put yourself on autopilot? You know, of course, what the autopilot is. And how useful it can be. You know, when you board a commercial aircraft, that the pilot won’t really be flying the plane all the time. The destination and flight-path have already been programmed into the computer. So that, for most of the journey, the plane flies itself. Which allows the captain to pay attention to other important things. And it’s not just aircraft that have this capability. We do too.
When I brush my teeth in the morning, I don’t usually pay much attention to the movements of my toothbrush. All that has already been programmed. I do it by habit, almost mechanically. I put myself on autopilot. And this allows me to think about other things, even as I keep my teeth and gums healthy. I can reflect on the Mass readings of the day, or even begin composing a homily like this one.
And yet, as useful as the autopilot may be, we all know that we can’t rely on it all the time. Even sophisticated commercial aircraft still require a flight crew, because there are crucial moments in the flight when the captain has to take over manual control. Not just at take-off and landing, but also during the flight itself. Whenever serious turbulence is encountered, for example, or some other emergency crops up.
In the same way, there are situations in our lives when keeping the autopilot on can be problematic. There was a time when I had a regular schedule that involved me getting into my car every evening, and driving home from work. I did this so regularly that, without knowing it, on the drive home, I began putting myself on autopilot. I would get into my car, start daydreaming and, the next thing I knew, I would find myself at home. Which was fine. Except that my schedule wasn’t always so regular. There were days when I would get into my car intending to go to the grocery store. But then, forgetting to turn off my internal autopilot, I would drive straight home instead.
As useful as it may be, there are times when the autopilot needs to be shut off. Times when, for various reasons, we have to pay more conscious attention to what we are doing, and where we are going. Times when we may even be called to change our flight-path.
The people of Nineveh, in the first reading, find themselves faced with just such an occasion. The prophet Jonah gives them a very good reason for turning off the autopilot and changing the direction of their lives. Jonah tells them that God is not pleased with them. Their current flight-path has placed them on a direct collision course with destruction. Only forty days more, they’re told, and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. To their credit, the Ninevites pay careful attention. They heed the prophet’s warning, and turn off the autopilot. They change the direction of their lives, and successfully evade disaster.
What Jonah does for the Ninevites, Paul seeks to do for the Christians of Corinth. Like Jonah, Paul teaches his readers how to tell time. Just as the Ninevites were told that they had only forty days before their city would be destroyed, Paul warns the Corinthians that our time is growing short.... because the world as we know it is passing away. No longer are we to aim only at leading a comfortable existence on this earth. No longer are we to care only about enjoying life, or about buying things, or about other worldly preoccupations. If we do, then, when the end comes, we will find ourselves sorely disappointed. For God is reordering reality according to another set of values. God is setting a course for a different destination: new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17). Like Jonah, Paul is inviting the Corinthians to turn off their autopilot, and to reassess their flight-path. Even to change it if necessary.
In the gospel too, Jesus begins his public ministry with a reminder about time. The time has come, he proclaims, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News. That is, change the direction of your life, or risk being excluded from the coming Kingdom.
But that’s not all. It’s not just for the sake of avoiding destruction or disappointment that we are called to change course. One very striking aspect of our readings today, is the fact that it’s not just the sinful people in them who find it necessary to make a change. At the end of the first reading, it is God himself who appears to change. After witnessing the Ninevites’ repentance, we’re told that God relented. God did not inflict on them the destruction that he had threatened. Out of mercy and compassion, God decides to spare the people.
Similarly, in the gospel too, we find Jesus himself making a change. We’re told that it was only after John the Baptist had been arrested, that our Lord went into Galilee to begin preaching. The people had just lost their prophet. They needed another. The time was ripe. And, generously, Jesus responds. He leaves the comfort of familiar surroundings, and positions his life in a whole new direction. One that will lead him all the way to the Cross and beyond.
What’s more, further on in the gospel reading, we find another group of people making a change, for a reason other than to evade disaster. Why did the four fishermen–Peter and Andrew, James and John–agree to change the direction of their lives so radically? Why did they suddenly leave their nets, their boats, even their father? They did so not to avoid destruction, but because they found themselves mysteriously attracted to the Lord. They wanted to remain with him, to be sent out by him, to share his life in some way.
Avoidance of destruction, compassion for the struggling, and attraction to the Lord: these are among the key reasons that our readings offer to us today for changing the direction of our lives. And it’s important that we pay careful attention to these reasons. Even to make them our own. For we live at a time when the dangers of flying on autopilot are many and obvious. Globally, our world seems set on a course for disaster. Our habits of consumption continue to do grave, possibly irreparable, damage to the environment, even as we go on neglecting the needs of the poorest among us. Closer to home, we find ourselves surrounded by many who fill their lives with an abundance of possessions, and yet can’t help feeling curiously empty inside. In such a situation, at such a critical time, what we need are people willing to make a change. People who are able to inspire others to do the same. People motivated not just by the desire to avoid destruction, but also by heartfelt compassion for those who may be lost, and, above all, by a profound attraction to the Crucified and Risen Lord.
Sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, how might the Lord be calling you to turn off the autopilot today?