Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (B)

January 25, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” (Mark 1:16-17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The Hebrew prophet Jonah has been sent by God to foretell the destruction of the city of Nineveh. Jonah is reluctant, and tries to escape God’s call. He boards a ship headed in the opposite direction; God sends a storm; the sailors throw Jonah overboard into the sea where he is swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah prays; and in his mercy, God delivers him from the great fish and sets him on dry land. Then Jonah answers God’s call and goes to Nineveh. The miracle is that the reluctant prophet is remarkably effective; as a result of his warning, the people repent and God forgives them.

The message of the book of Jonah is uplifting: God is willing to forgive those who repent. The importance of hearing prophets, of repentance and right action is affirmed: We can change God’s mind and save ourselves from calamity. Salvation is possible by our own intention and effort, with God’s grace. Jonah has answered God’s call and the results surprise him.

Can you think of a time when you have turned away from God’s call? Questioned God’s purpose for you? How did the outcome surprise you?

How does the story of the prophet Jonah challenge your assumptions about the God of the Hebrew Bible?

Psalm 62:6-14

This psalm might be called the Song of Jonah, as Jonah rejoices in his renewed trust in God and sense of purpose after he has been delivered from the great fish. The psalmist begins with personal experience; he affirms his trust in God. Then the psalmist’s voice turns to exhortation, urging the listeners to join in and find their safety in God. The psalmist offers a contrast, listing those temptations that interfere with trust in God. The message is that in God alone can we put our trust. The passage ends with a transition to a prayer, addressing God: “Steadfast love is yours.” It is a strong and poetic affirmation of faith.

How does the selection from Psalm 62 look back to the story of Jonah before our Hebrew Bible passage for today? How does the selection look forward to the events of today’s passage? Look for specific passages from the text to guide your answer.

How does the notion of salvation in this selection contrast with the notion of salvation in the passage from Jonah in today’s Hebrew Bible reading? Where do you stand on the issue of salvation by works versus salvation by grace?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

This poignant passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a prophecy in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Paul calls his readers to right behavior in the face of crisis: Time is growing short; the present form of the world is passing away. For Paul, he and his communities are living in an eschatological era that has been ushered in by Christ’s sacrifice. This passage falls in the middle of a series of directives concerning marriage in the end times. From how those who are married ought to behave – as if they have no wives – he broadens his instructions to those who mourn, those who rejoice, and especially those who deal with the world of possessions. He seems to forecast that the world will be turned upside down, and it is urgent for those who have focused on the things of the world to repent.

Do you find God’s call more urgent in times of crisis? How does your notion of salvation change under stressful, demanding circumstances? How does your notion of Godly behavior change under such circumstances?

What is your reaction to Paul’s injunction that those who mourn should be as if they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as if they were not rejoicing?

How does living as Paul directs in this passage – as if circumstances were not as they are – relate to your sense of call or vocation?

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ words in the first chapter of Mark, verse 15 – the time of the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news – echo Paul’s injunctions that we heard in today passage from First Corinthians. More rightly stated, Paul’s words echo those of Jesus, which echo the words of John the Baptist and the Hebrew prophets.

In all today’s readings, we have been urged to repent and believe in the Good News. Simon, Andrew, James and John react to God’s urgent call in the opposite way from Jonah in the Hebrew Bible lesson today. While Jonah responds to God’s call by running away to sea, these four fishermen are compelled by Jesus’ compelling charisma to leave their nets and their boats behind and follow wherever he leads them. Their trust in Jesus as God’s prophet is unconditional. This passage affirms the Good News that God calls each and every one of us to the work of God’s Kingdom, even if the end of the journey – indeed, the next step – is uncertain.

It can be difficult to believe in good news and to respond with trust. When have you responded to good news as Jonah did, by running away? When have you responded as the disciples did, by dropping everything and embracing the news? How did your response affect the outcome?

Look back to the psalm for today, and read it as if you are hearing the four fishermen praying after their encounter with Jesus. Return to the notions of salvation and repentance. Does the Good News of Mark’s gospel change your conversation about salvation by grace and salvation by works?

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