Today’s readings seem a bit implausible.
In the first, a prophet named Jonah goes to a city called Nineveh — capital of a ruthless empire — makes a brief announcement of God’s judgment, and just like that, everybody repents of their sins.
The ruins of Nineveh are at modern Mosul in Iraq, a city that the Islamic State terrorist group controlled until recently. Could you imagine some guy in a village being told by God to go to Mosul in, say, 2016, preaching God’s justice on a downtown street — and every jihadi just laying down his weapons and walking away?
And look at the Gospel story.
Walking along a lakeshore, Jesus sees some men fishing — men who apparently have never seen him before this moment. He calls them to drop everything and follow him, and again, just like that, they do. It sounds like a romance in which the whole story consists of a man going up to a perfect stranger in the hardware aisle at Walmart and asking her to marry him — and she agrees.
Yet there’s something appealing about these stories. If only it did happen that a few words from a prophet would bring a nation to repentance. If only, while I’m at work tomorrow, Jesus in the flesh would walk right into my classroom (warehouse, office, kitchen ...) and call me to follow him. That especially I would like!
Well, the Jonah story uses some deliberate exaggeration. (If Nineveh really took three days to walk through, it would have been four times the size of Los Angeles.) But it does so to make a point. God’s word can set right not only individuals but whole societies — if we would receive it.
And Mark is actually well aware that Peter and the other men knew Jesus before the lakeshore encounter. But he omits that background information to dramatize the life-changing impact Jesus has on them, because that’s the impact Jesus can have on us — if we open our lives to him.
Neither author is suggesting that God’s word, even God’s Word incarnate, usually has an instantaneous revolutionary effect on us, although that does happen. But what’s important is not how quickly we hear God’s word or how long it takes us to come to know Jesus. It’s not the pace but the reality that counts.