The Ordinary Cost of Discipleship
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” We hear these words on Ash Wednesday, and they are the heart of the readings today… and of the entire Gospel. We need to hear them again and again, echoing in our hearts, prodding our consciences, and upsetting our complacency. “Repent” means to turn our life around, establishing it firmly in God’s will and uprooting our own selfishness, stubbornness, and sin. “Believe” means not only to give intellectual assent to the Gospel, but to give our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to it, with complete trust in God’s providence. “Gospel,” of course, means the Good News of Salvation. What is impossible for us to accomplish alone, Christ accomplishes for us, with us, and in us by His grace. The whole summons, then, requires a “yes” to grace, to Christ accomplishing the will of the Father in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not “cheap grace,” though, as theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted. The “cost of discipleship,” he reminded us, is the cross, a dying to one’s own selfish will and an embrace of God’s will with absolute trust.
Jonah, looked at through the lens of Christ, is a wonderful example of the cost of discipleship. God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, and today’s reading focuses on God’s mercy to the people for their repentance. What is left out is that Jonah didn’t want them to repent! Jonah would gladly have watched God smite them for their sins. He ended up in the belly of a large fish, after all, because he was trying to avoid going to Nineveh in the first place. He knew that if he preached repentance, they would repent and would find God to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah, himself, needed to repent and, quite literally, to turn around and do God’s will. Afterwards, sitting under a bush that God provided him for shade, Jonah sulked about God’s mercy to Nineveh. God then caused the bush to wither and reproved Jonah for his attitude. It was a powerful lesson on the nature of God’s grace and God’s universal salvific will. It was also a lesson on the absolute necessity of loving our enemies if we are to love as God loves.
We are all a bit like Jonah, though, I think. We know where God is sending us, but sometimes we want to go the other way. Loving our enemies seems too difficult. On occasion, we would rather see justice than mercy. We are willing to love good people, but to love our enemies appears foolish, stupid even. It takes a lot of faith to believe that loving our enemies does any good.
Nevermind enemies. We have trouble even with people who just annoy us or whose opinions differ from ours. Look at how vitriolic the debates on social media have become. The comment box, as Fr. James Martin has noted, is one of the most un-Christian places in our modern world. The anonymity of the internet seems to bring out the worst qualities of many people. This is certainly the case with cyberbullying, as our young people, especially, understand. Pope Francis recently spoke about bullying as sin, saying, “When we realize that we harbor within ourselves the desire to attack someone because they are weak, we have no doubt: It is the devil. Because attacking the weak is the work of Satan.”
Here, then, are three challenges that today’s readings pose to us. First, in any ways are we running away from God’s will as Jonah did, preferring our own will to God’s? Second, are there cases where we prefer justice (conceived of as vengeance) to mercy? Third, whether in person or online, are we loving our enemies—i.e., wanting for them what God wants for them—or are we engaging in the vitriol and cyberbullying? As we examine our consciences, we find our hope in the Gospel, the Good News that God is always seeking our conversion and is ready to forgive, just as God once forgave all of Nineveh. We are called to live in the Kingdom of God. To get there, with the assistance of divine grace and mercy, we have only to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”