Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Twenty-seventh Wednesday in Ordinary Time, Year I

Readings: Jon. 4,1-11; Ps. 86,3-6.9-10; Lk. 11,1-4

There are two pillars of the Christian life: prayer and growth in holiness, or human flourishing. Holiness cannot happen, we cannot flourish, without prayer anymore than a flower can bloom without good soil, water, and sunlight. It is important to realize that prayer, in addition to talking to God, also means listening to God. Most contemporary writers on Christian spirituality define prayer as opening one's self to God. This point about listening to God in prayer is made in a rather comedic way in our reading today from the Book of Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet in Israel who was called by God to preach to the Ninevehites. Jonah resisted this call with all his might. He set out for Tarshish, which is on the western end of the Mediterranean, or ninety degrees out from where God called him. God had called him to go East to Nineveh. Of course, God's plan is not frustrated. First the ship was beset by a fierce storm, during which, upon the crew's realization that Jonah was the cause of their peril, the reluctant prophet was thrown overboard only to be swallowed by a very large fish and spit up on the shore near Nineveh. At this point Jonah realized that there was no escaping his call. So, he preached to the Ninevehites, who were renown for their wickedness, and they repented, one and all, and began to worship the Lord God. Was Jonah happy about this? No! He was angry. This is where today's reading picks up.

After the conversion of Nineveh, Jonah went from the city and built a hut waiting for and still hoping that God would visit punishment upon the formerly wicked city. You see, Jonah is a character representing one kind of Jew, the kind who believed that God's covenant with Israel was an end in itself, not a means to making all people, like the Ninevehites, God's people. To go off on kind of a tangent, it is necessary to point out that the author of the Book of Jonah does not record, or even pretend to record, actual events. Hence, instead of getting bogged down with silly questions, like how can a person survive inside a big fish for three days, we should focus on the divinely inspired message that the author is trying to convey through the telling of the story. After all, Jesus' parables were not about things that actually happened. Are they any less true, or applicable to life for that? Returning to the point, the author of this book is taking the other side, the side that the prophets tend to take, that through God's covenant, initiated with Abraham, "all the nations of the earth shall find blessing" (Gen 22,18). So, Jonah is a deliberately ridiculous figure who represents those we might call xenophobes. The Catholic analog to the xenophobe is the one who believes that the Eucharist is an end in itself in which only the privileged few get to participate, when it is the means through which God brings about the redemption and sanctification of the whole world, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God then makes a gourd plant grow to give Jonah shade, but then sends a worm to kill and eat the plant, leaving Jonah exposed once again to the blistering sun, about which Jonah complains. God takes this opportunity to rebuke Jonah for caring more about the plant, or, really about his own comfort, than about the people who came to believe through his preaching, who he now resents.

Isn't this often true in our prayer life, that we are so busy asking God for what we want that when God asks something of us we feel put upon, or even listening enough to know? We also see this in how we share our faith. Do we want others to experience the love of God, the love that is at the very heart of Blessed Trinity, or would we, like Jonah, rather see God's punishment visited upon them? The question is, if we share our faith at all, how do we share it, as an experience of love, truth, goodness, and beauty, or do we use it as a club with which to beat others? This is why, in our Gospel today, Jesus teaches us how to pray, which is simply. What the Lord's Prayer shows us is that prayer is more about accepting what God, our loving Father, gives that we need than asking for what we want.

Our antiphon, taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, which we recited as part of our Gospel acclamation, reveals a further insight into the life of prayer, namely that through Christ we have received a spirit of adoption as daughters and sons of God, to whom we pray, in imitation of our Lord, Abba! Father (Rom. 8,23)! So, let us not fail to pray for the coming of God's Kingdom. Let us be attentive to God in our lives, trying to heed what God would have us do. Being open to other people is something our faith, something God, requires of us that we do not need to inquire about. Nonetheless, as the story of Jonah shows it is not always easy to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

(Homily preached at Holy Family parish)

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