Greater than Jonah, Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent, March 3, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Lenten Mission
St. Michael’s Church, Lowell, MA
Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
March 3, 2004
Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 51; Lk 11:29-32

Jonah 3:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Luke 11:29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! 32 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!

Living Discipleship involves three steps:

1) Knowing who Jesus is and taking him seriously. Greater than Jonah, Greater than Solomon. Greater than anything or anyone. People make all types of sacrifices to see the Holy Father, but a greater than Holy Father. If the Rolling Stones, or Springsteen, or Jennifer Lopez, were giving a free concert, you could fill up Gilette Stadium, but we have a greater than them here. Jesus is the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, worth selling everything else to obtain. Many Catholics take the gift of God’s incredible presence for granted. They readily profess that they know that God is present in the Eucharist, present in his sacraments, but they live as if he’s not. They’ll spend more time talking to friends on the phone than they will talking to God in prayer. They’ll spend more time shopping on Sunday than they will in Church. They’ll make time for all types of things that they know are not all that important but not make time for God. Lent is a time for us to recalibrate not just what we believe but how we’re acting on our belief. Lent is a time for us first to recognize what an incredible gift God has given us and to make sure that we never take that for granted.

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston have been living through a protracted Lent for a couple of years. With all the talk of parish closings, it would be easy for people to start to long for “the way things used to be,” to focus on present difficulties, to complain. But it is also a time for us to focus on what is most important, that we have a greater than Solomon, a greater than Jonah here. Regardless of what building Jesus decides to meet us in, it is still Jesus, who will always be far more important than the building. The focus on who Jesus is will be ever more important during these days, as others practically will be challenging their fellow Catholics to try to think that the building is more important than the one who makes the building holy.

2) The second step is to eliminate whatever is incompatible with that greatness — His wisdom is greater than Solomon’s, his message greater than Jonah. Jonah’s message was one of conversion, of turning away from sin. “40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” “39 more days and Niniveh will be destroyed.” At that message, the pagan city of Nineveh converted. Everyone, from the king down to the dogs, dressed in sackloth and ashes and fasted. God heard their prayer of repentance. We began this Lent one week ago with ashes, when Jesus, through instructed us, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” This sentence is a translation of Jesus’ first homily. After he was baptized in the Jordan by John, and came out from 40 days in the desert praying and fasting and being tempted by the devil, Jesus was found in Galilee, preaching. His first homily was only 19 words. It likely was something he had spent years getting ready to preach. And his message was: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The kingdom of God is at hand because the king is at hand. The king who himself is holy. Therefore, there was a poignant call from Jesus’ own lips to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

We see in the episode of the calling of the prophet Isaiah that God allowed Isaiah to see a vision of God surrounded by the Seraphim, who were crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, God Almighty!” Isaiah’s first reaction was that he was unfit to be there, for he was a man of unclean lips from among a people with unclean lips. God is not just the greatest, but he is also holy, holy, holy, and when one comes into the presence of that holiness, man should feel a little uncomfortable. The same thing happened to St. Peter after the miraculous catch of fish. “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But in each case, God made the person capable of being in his presence. He sent a seraphim to cleanse Isaiah’s mouth with a coal and Jesus himself cleansed Peter’s heart.

Our second step in living our discipleship is to recognize how holy God is and to cut out from our lives whatever is incompatible with His holiness. It’s to repent. The pagans in Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. But we have a greater than Jonah here. The same God who purified Isaiah and St. Peter wants to purify us. On the day he triumphed over sin and death, that first Easter Sunday, he created a Sacrament and sent his apostles out with the power over the Holy Spirit to forgive sins in his name. Jesus loved sinners enough to create this sacrament and make it easy and accessible, but his followers need to take advantage of it. Jesus loves sinners but really HATES sin, because our sins killed Him and he knows they will kill us. We don’t know if we even have 40 days left, like the folks in Nineveh. The time to repent is now. This is the second step, eliminating whatever is incompatible with God’s greatness, with God’s holiness.

3) The third step is then to live as Jesus has taught — When I was in Italy there was an interview with an actor who had become famous in pornographic movies. In the course of the interview, the journalist discovered that the actor had gone to Italy’s Catholic University and, contrary to what the reporter might have thought, loved his time there. The porn-star specifically lauded one of the ethics professors there, whose course he said he really enjoyed so much that he never missed a class and actually did well on the final exam. The journalist thought it might be an interesting angle for the story to interview that professor. When asked about his now famous alumnus, the philosophy professor simply said, “that man was never my student.” The reporter then opened up the notebook and repeated some of the things that the student had said, how he had never missed a class, how he had done well on the oral final exam, how he even remembered some of the professor’s notable quips. The professor repeated, however, that he was never his student. “So are you saying he was never in your class?,” the reporter queried. “I didn’t say that,” the professor replied. “He was definitely in my class. I remember even where he used to sit. I think he’s right that he in fact did do well on the final exam, but that man was never my student. To be a student,” he continued, “means more than just attending classes, taking notes and regurgitating the information. To be a student means to put what the teacher taught into practice. And obviously that man was never my student.”

Disciple is just the Greek word for student. To be a disciple of Jesus means more than to know what he said or he did. It means more than believing that he was the Son of God and the Savior of the World. It means putting what the Master said into practice, living by what he taught. To be a disciple of Christ means not just to know how many beatitudes there are, but to become the beatitudes. It means to become more and more like Christ, to allow Christ’s own life and love to flow through our veins.

To be a disciple of Christ is not easy, therefore. It’s to try to become more and more like our teacher. To say this in another way, to be a disciple is to strive to become truly holy, holy like God is, holy like he wants us to become. Pope John Paul II has said that many Catholics seem to be content with living a “mediocre” Christian life, having a “shallow” prayer life, keeping “most” of the commandments. These are people who are, in many cases, like that Italian actor. To be a true disciple means to be zealous for the things of the Lord, to strive to become as good and as holy as God will allow. The Latin word “student” comes from the be zealous, to be on fire.

Jesus once gave the conditions for those who want to be his disciple. They’re stark. They’re challenging. But they’re not impossible, because Jesus would never call us to something impossible. Listen to what he said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Jesus says that if we want to be his disciple, we have to know ahead of time, what it’s going to cost. It’s going to mean putting God in first place in our lives, above everything else. We have to love God more than we love the other members of our family, even more than our life itself. We have to be willing to pick up our Cross daily and follow him. We have to become detached from our possessions, from worldliness, from anything that will keep us from God. In all of this, Jesus never says, merely, “Do what I say,” but rather “follow me!” He’s asking us to love him as he loved us, above everything even his life. He’s asking us to pick the Cross and bear it with love for him and for others, just as he did for us. He’s asking us to let go of everything to follow him all the way, because none of our possessions can fit through the needle’s eye to enter into life and the only things we can take with us are what we give away in acts of love.

We do have a greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah. How lucky we are! He has given us his wisdom, which is a wisdom the world doesn’t have, that goes contrary to the wisdom of the world. But he is the one, the only one, with the words of eternal life. He has loved each of us enough to call us to be his faithful disciples, which is a path of true holiness. May we respond to the grace of Lent, to the grace of this mission, to the grace of this Mass, to live out that faithful discipleship, so that one day we might come to the kingdom that same Lord, out of love, gained for us.