Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B
The news these days often has you shaking you head, doesn’t it? But sometimes, news has an even greater power: to make us drop everything and stop us in our tracks.
I think of the evening last July when I got a phone call telling me my family’s farm was on fire. Within ten minutes I was in the car and heading fast for home. And it only took me ten whole minutes because I needed some time to get my head wrapped around what I’d heard and to tell Fr. Scott I probably wouldn’t be back until very, very late.
But it’s not only bad news that can make you drop everything. In 2015, not long after Pope John Paul II had died, I was in Washington visiting a priest friend who was studying there. He was dropping me off to spend the afternoon at the Smithsonian as he headed off to class at Catholic University. I literally had one foot already out of the car when we heard coming over the radio: “Breaking news from Rome—there’s white smoke at the Vatican!”
“Shut the door!” my friend shouted as he hit the gas. “Where are we going?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “but we’ve got to find a television fast!” We ended up at a bar (sounds like a joke doesn’t it?—“two priests walk into a bar…”), waiting for the good news of just who the Cardinals had elected as our new Pope.
In the gospel reading this Sunday, St. Mark tells us that Jesus came “proclaiming the gospel of God.” But what does that word, “gospel,” mean? And where does it come from?
Literally, the word “gospel” means “good news” or “glad tidings.” In Greek—the language of the New Testament—the word is euangelion. In Old English, that became good spiel, which then became godspell (remember that musical from the ’70’s?), and eventually gospel.
The word euangelion existed before Christians began to use it in relation to Jesus—and it didn’t point to just any ol’ happy message. In the first century, it was specifically connected to good news in connection with the Roman emperor. (Even way back then most of the news was political.) If Caesar had a son, if an heir was born, that was shared throughout the empire as an euangelion, as good news. When a new emperor ascended to the throne, it was an euangelion. When the emperor won a military victory, it too was an euangelion. And since Caesar couldn’t tweet his good news to the four corners of his vast realm, he sent our flesh-and-blood messengers known as “evangelists” to start spreading the news.
So consider how that word sounded when it was used by the first Christians. Think back a month to Christmas. What was the message of the angel? “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy—euangelion—for all the people!” This was an announcement that didn’t come from Rome, but straight from heaven. And it hailed the birth, not of Caesar’s son, but of the Son of God. Now that’s good news!
Then think a couple of months ahead to Easter. The apostles—some of whom we begin to meet this Sunday—will go forth from Jerusalem to spread a joyful message—an euangelion: that this Son of God took upon himself what we deserved—he died for our sins on the Cross—and has risen from the dead. The emperor may have had the power to take life, but Jesus had the power to give it anew. Caesar might have been victorious on the battlefield, but Christ has conquered even greater enemies: no less than the devil, death, and hell. Now that’s good news!
How ought we respond to such news from the Lord?
In our first reading, the prophet Jonah is sent to the city of Nineveh with a less-than-cheery announcement: “Forty days, and your city will be wiped out!” What do the people do when they hear this news? They stop in their tracks. They drop everything. They repent of their evil ways and their city is spared.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew, James and John, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He proclaims the gospel, the good news, to them, and how do they respond? They drop their nets. They walk away from their families. They leave everything behind to follow Jesus.
Now, we can wonder about the motivation of these four men when they walk away so quickly from their boats. Given how many times we hear about these fishermen coming in with empty nets, we could get the impression that they were poor and simple country bumpkins. Following this wandering preacher surely would have seemed like a more interesting venture—and might even be their meal ticket. Why, they didn’t have anything to loose! But did you catch that detail at the end of the reading? When the sons of Zebedee walk away, they leave their father in the boat “along with the hired men.” We’re talking about successful businessmen here. Following Jesus would entail some real and serious sacrifice.
When was the last time you dropped everything for Jesus? When was the last time you dropped anything for Jesus?
Maybe there’s a sin that has plagued you for far too long. Is Jesus calling you to stop in your tracks and leave it behind, so it will no longer be an obstacle in your relationship with him? Maybe what you’re called to drop isn’t something wicked, but something good. As St. Paul reminds us, we Christians must relate to the things of this passing world in a very different way than do all the rest. Is Jesus calling you to make some sacrifice—big or small—in order to follow him more closely than before?
Of course, if we’re going to be motivated to drop anything or everything, then we must be struck deeply by the good news. Most of us have little trouble recognizing the gospel as good; but after two thousand years, we do struggle to receive it as news. But let this sink in again: God became man for you; God died on a Cross for you; God rose from the dead for you. Whoa! Can anything really be more consistently newsworthy than that? We mustn’t allow ourselves to ever take the gospel for granted.
Ask Jesus for the grace to hear his gospel again as if for the first time. Let is stop you in your tracks. Drop your nets, and follow him.
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After Holy Communion:
Jesus is as really and truly present to us here and now as he was to Simon and Andrew, James and John, when walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He’s really present to us in his precious Body and precious Blood—present before us in the tabernacle, present within us in Holy Communion. He’s still announcing the gospel: that God is with us, that God loves us, that God will stop at nothing to save us. And he’s still calling, now as then. Ask the Lord in these few silent moments to open your eyes to recognize any sin from which you still need to repent—and to give you the strength to walk away from it. Ask Jesus to make it clear if there’s any sacrifice he wants you to make for the sake of your relationship with him—and to give you the courage to drop your nets and follow.