Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Ombres considers what it costs to follow Christ.
The readings for Mass today may seem impressive, but also very distant from us. We can admire from a distance whilst remaining unchanged.
Jonah, for all his reluctance, was a prophet, and at great cost to himself as his life became disrupted by God. Simon and Andrew, brothers who made a living by fishing, when Jesus told them to follow him in a very different way of life immediately left the tools of their trade and followed him. Soon after, Jesus saw James and John at their work. He called them and they left their father in the boat and followed him. These were costing separations from work and family towards an uncertain future. This is only chapter 1 of St Mark’s Gospel, and the rest of the Gospel (combined with the other gospels) will tell what that undisclosed future in following Jesus would bring.
And what about us? We are likely to admire and be impressed by all that we have just heard about Jonah and the call of four disciples. As with all heroic figures, however, there is the danger that they are more likely to attract us from a safe and undisturbed distance. The impact of Jesus too, and much more so, may be lost in our admiration for him if we stay at a safe distance from his call to us. ‘Follow me’ says Jesus.
Follow him, but how? Leave work and family, that which in important ways fills our days and projects? Admiration without commitment, without direct involvement, will either leave us unchanged or alienate us in the face of perfection. For most Christians life will involve work, family, and belonging to a given society. The disruptions caused to Jonah and to the first disciples were extremely demanding. How are we to respond?
It all begins and ends within the security that comes from belonging to God and abandoning ourselves to his loving providence for each of us. The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, is how today’s gospel reading opens. We are frail and wavering and somewhat in the dark, but God is not. Jesus on seeing James and John calls them immediately. He knows what he is doing and what is best for us.
What about the radical demands, the renunciations and redirections of life? Divine providence is for each of us, as well as for the direction of all time towards the final manifestation of the Kingdom. Here the second reading, taken from one of St Paul’s letters, can help us to understand better.
St Paul’s own life had its dramatic and total upheavals, and this may happen to some of us. Yet reflecting on what he advises, what is asked of all of us Christians in all the different ways we live is not so much ‘to give up’ everything and all human attachments, but ‘to give them over’ to God and his plan for us. A telling phrase is that those who deal with the world must act as though they had no dealings with it. Some other words used by St Paul just before our reading come to mind: whatever our kind of life, let us remain with God. Our human nature gives various directions to our lives. Our baptism, a fundamental intervention of God in our lives, requires and makes possible that we live as close to God as is possible for each one of us. Radical, chosen poverty, for example, will not be for all of us – using whatever we have for the realisation of the Kingdom is for all of us.
We Christians, then, are going to live a variety of different lives. Living in God’s grace, and constantly deepening the conversion begun at baptism, we can remain in God and belong to his kingdom. Time, God’s good time, will show us how the way of life we have can be lived close to God.
To repeat, for all Christians the essential response is not to ‘give up’ everything, but ‘to give over’ everything to God. This means living provisionally. Provisional in two senses. We live provisionally by being aware that although we exist in time and among earthly realities they are not ultimates. And we live provisionally by living in ways that look forward to the world that is certainly to come and help to bring it about.