Homily: Important and Urgent

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) go to readings
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1st Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

I have often spoken of my appreciation of Steven Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and I have used his principles as examples. Today we have another one. It’s about urgency and importance. You can put them on a grid of four quadrants. The top row are high urgency things, and the bottom row are low urgent things. The left side are high importance things, and the right side are low importance things.

In the first quadrant, you have those things that are both urgent and important. Important deadlines. Things that have to be done as soon as reasonably possible, or bad things will happen if you don’t. At work, it’s putting out the fires. Down in the Quadrant 3, we have things that are high in urgency and low and importance. Things that seem like we have to do them right now, but really if we took a longer look, they’re not that important. They’re the annoying or procrastinating things that aren’t that important that get in the way of being more productive. You don’t want to be organizing your collection of trolls when you should be doing what your boss asked you to do. Over in quadrant 4, you have the things that are low in importance, and low in urgency. It doesn’t really matter much if they get done, and it doesn’t really matter when. For example, organizing your collection of trolls.

But the magic happens in Quadrant 2: This is the category of things that are high importance, but rarely get the attention they deserve because we’re too busy putting out the fires of Quadrant 1 stuff. Quadrant 2 is the stuff that we know we should invest time in. Preparing our investment portfolio. Reading the pile of books we mean to get to. Calling or visiting that friend that keeps coming to mind. Practicing our musical instrument or hobby. All those things that make our life richer, make our future more positive, builds relationships, and we keep putting it off because we’re too busy. So it either becomes urgent, and rushes into Quadrant 1, when we now have to take care of a long term project with insufficient time, or it gets puts down in Quadrant 4, where we just never get to it, and our life is less flourishing by its neglect.

Most of us put our religion, our relationship with God, building a habit of prayer, and getting to know our faith, out in quadrant 2. Yeah, I know it’s important, but I’ll have time to do that later when I’m not so busy with the stuff I need to do now. Our readings today, here at the beginning of the liturgical year, are to teach us to put our faith where it belongs: In quadrant 1. It’s important and urgent. It’s every day, every moment, every situation, every relationship. It’s everything.

Last week we saw in the Gospel of John, Andrew and another disciple, possibly John, have their first encounter with Jesus, after they were directed to him by John the Baptist. Then Andrew introduced his brother Peter to Jesus. This week we have the Gospel of Mark, and we have a different version of the story. Jesus is walking along the shore, and happens to see Peter and Andrew, and simply says, “Follow me,” and they immediately go. Then John and James, who leave their nets and their father, follow also. No long intro, no discourse. Call and response.

We might take issue with these two gospel versions of Jesus gathering his disciples. Which one is right? The Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mark? Notice that in John, John the Baptist is there pointing out Jesus, and the disciples spend an evening talking with him. Here in the beginning of our reading from Mark, it starts out, “After John had been arrested.” So this is clearly a later event. And perhaps that’s why the disciples leave so quickly: they’ve been prepared, their hearts have been set on fire with the hope of encountering Jesus again, and when he calls them, they jump at the invitation.

His invitation to these fishermen, that Jesus will make them “Fishers of men” is not just a neat play on words. It’s also fulfillment of prophecy. The prophet Jeremiah taught the Israelites to look forward to a new exodus which would eclipse the original exodus in its significance. And this exodus will be the restoration of Israel when he calls them and they all come streaming back from all the nations of the world. The kingdom of the northern tribes of Israel had been conquered and scattered by the great enemy to the northeast, the Assyrian Empire, in the 7th century BC, because of the northern kingdom’s corruption and other sins against God. Jeremiah says, “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them…

Also, there’s another prophecy in play, from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar received an image in a dream of a large statue of different materials, gold, iron, and clay, which Daniel, an Israelite slave in the king’s court, interpreted for him to mean that there would be a succession of kingdoms: The Babylonian Empire, the Median/Persian Empire, Greek Empire, and the Roman Empire. Then in the dream a stone falls from heaven onto the statue, and the statue crumbles, and the stone grows to become a great mountain. And this is the kingdom of God. This prophecy from Daniel was popular among the Jews of Jesus’ time. So when Jesus comes on the scene saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news,” and “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” it caused quite a stir in Israel.

Our first reading, about Jonah, has this same urgent call as our gospel. Jonah, much to his dislike, was called by God to minister to the capital city of that same pagan empire: the Assyrians, that had attacked and destroyed the northern tribes of Israel. Jonah had already tried fleeing to the other end of the world. That’s when the storm caused Jonah to be thrown overboard where he was eaten by a fish, and three days later found himself alive, back where he started, like Groundhog Day, with the firm order from God to go to Nineveh. So he did. He proclaimed the message God gave him: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” It seems like Jonah didn’t really want Nineveh to be saved, and said no more than he had to, in the hopes that God would destroy this enemy city. But Nineveh was saved. They repented of their evil, petitioned the God of Israel, not even their own God, to spare them, and God did so. Again, we might balk at how the scripture states it: “God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them.” First, how can God repent, and second, why would he have threatened evil? Well first, the implied fuller message to Nineveh was “If Nineveh doesn’t repent within 40 days, it will be destroyed.” So since Nineveh repented, God’s ultimatum was satisfied, and he didn’t have to carry through with his sentence. That’s not a change in God. And second, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for suffering. So all the related words were communicated by the same term: suffering, evil, misery, distress, etc. So it’s not that God was threatening to do evil, but that he was threatening them with the suffering for their sin. An interesting observation is that Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet, and they were saved. Israel did not repent, and God used Assyria to punish them.

In our second reading, the urgency of the Christian life reaches its highest pitch. Saint Paul writes, “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out…For the world in its present form is passing away.” And he tells them, live in this world, but detached from it. Be ready to sacrifice all for God when he calls, that’s our first priority. Love your wife, your home, your job, your life in the world, but love God more and be ready. Whatever you’re going through, grieving, rejoicing, whatever you’re doing, buying, selling… this is like a description of the people of Noah’s day, who were doing all the everyday “important” things, instead of listening to Noah and preparing for the flood.

And lastly, our psalm connects with an important part of this weekend. “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths; Guide me in your truth and teach me.” Saturday evening our students in 8th grade entered into the last stage before receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is the sacrament giving us the grace of witnessing to the world as a Christian, responsible for our actions, for our habits and lifestyle, for our example to others, for our salvation. They leave the school of childhood formation in the faith, and take their place among the ranks of Christians who must know their faith and live it out in a world that might be opposed to us on important, life-or-death matters. Hopefully by this point they have a discipline of daily prayer, of growing in relationship with our Lord and with the Blessed Mother, and they have a firm foundational understanding of our faith on which to build their character and their future faith development. We pray for them, as we pray for the whole world, that we may urgently serve our Lord in His truth, love, and mercy.