Frances writes :- Looking at our three readings for this week (3rd Sunday) we might be forgiven for thinking that the scriptures take a very jaundiced view of city life and the trade that dominated them in ancient times. On the surface of things Jonah delivers God’s curse to Nineveh; Paul appears at his most negative about human flourishing; and Our Lord takes the first disciples away from their going commercial concerns to follow him.
But is this really the case? The book of Jonah (Jonah 3:1-5, 10), is difficult to date but certainly belongs to the period after the Babylonian exile and most likely about the 4th century BC. We know about Nineveh as the capital of Assyrian Sennacherib from the friezes which decorated his palace, (now in the British Museum), showing the siege and sack of Jewish Lachish in the 7th century, with its horrific depictions of the flaying alive and impaling of the defenders; and by the time our writer was at work it is almost certain that Nineveh was dust, having fallen to the Babylonians and then the Persians. It may be that our author was writing to encourage Jewish communities left behind in Babylonia after the exile, or, more likely that he wanted to emphasise God’s love and redemption even for foreigners – even those whose reputation in history was of the most horrific and violent suppression of his own people. God, as the entire Book of Jonah seems to say, in a flurry of black humour, can and will reach out to anyone with an urgency and compelling call as it did, much to the disgust of Jonah. There is no limit to God’s grace, especially shocking to Jews who held a radically exclusive approach to foreigners.
Something of the same feel attaches to Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:29-31). Paul, not unlike many a preacher today, strives to convey the urgency of the gospel; its call to radical reform and commitment. I suspect many of us are rather like the Christians of Corinth, Sunday worshippers only, with our God-slot, but loath to allow him to impinge on other areas of our lives. For the nouveau-riche of cut-and-thrust new Corinth with its two sea ports on either side of the isthmus of Corinth; its imperial provincial capital; and its busy markets, making money at any cost was the priority, and nothing much was allowed to interfere with that project. Yet the Christian message spoke radically to the Corinthians of their new identity, their transformed being as they now live with and in Jesus Christ ;and Paul strives to bring home to them how this impinges upon their daily reality. What would it have meant to slave sellers in the huge emporium; to brothel keepers; to money exchangers; not to mention its convert magistrate Erastus, in charge of the treasury (Rom 16:23) with the need to provide city games to ensure his continual political career. What did it mean for all those for whom the Christian message poured forth a new vision of being human – now no longer commodities but ‘fellow heirs’ with Christ? Surely then, as now, the vision of man made in God’s image remains a continual challenge and opportunity in contrast to the status quo.
In our gospel (Mark 1:14-20) we find that even Jesus needed a catalyst to spark his ministry into action, and that of course came with the arrest and execution of John the Baptist which made Jesus recognise that ‘the time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand’; not any time, but Kairos, God’s time, divine time, opportune time, the time in which every baptised Christian lives, plucked from ordinary life into God’s life. It is a realm of infinite possibility and grace, all we have to do like the first disciples is respond, as pope Leo the Great wrote to his congregations in Rome so long ago, O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share.