Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year B at St Margaret Mary’s Parish, Merrylands
21 January 2018
Dear sisters and brothers,
Few of us are free from prejudice against certain people on the basis of their gender, culture, religion, nationality or other personal characteristics. During the long civil war in Vietnam, the southerners had an intense hatred for the communist north. The saying “better dead than red” was taken seriously. It seems that every nation at any given time has to deal with its own prejudice. For instance, in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, Japanese Americans were once regarded as potential enemies. One suspects Middle Eastern Americans aren’t faring much better these days after 9/11. In our own country, tensions with certain ethnic groups are never far from the surface. As we approach Australia Day, we are reminded of the unresolved relationship with our indigenous peoples.
In today’s Scriptures, we are taught the unexpected ways of God and invited to walk the journey of transformation. We are challenged to move beyond the limits of our love and grow into the all-embracing love of God.
The book of Jonah was written as a response to rising xenophobia in Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile were blamed on foreigners and their sympathisers. There was the idea that true Jews should have nothing to do with non-Jews. Jonah challenged such an idea, though he was not so inclusive and magnanimous with outsiders initially.
In the reading, he was told to go to Nineveh and preach God’s love and forgiveness to the heathens there. Jonah thought God made a big mistake because Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s arch-enemy, the Persian Empire. He tried hard to have the mission aborted. His attempts were of no avail, including one which resulted in him being swallowed by a whale. God was determined to show his love outside the boundaries of Israel. To Jonah’s surprise, the foreigners were so receptive of God’s message that they repented, “from the greatest to the least”. In fact, the only resistance was that of Jonah to God’s idea of inclusive salvation.
The lesson here is not only about the favourable response to God’s mercy from an unfavourable people. It is also about the humbling realisation that there are no boundaries and no favourites as far as God is concerned. Jonah learns a hard but important lesson that all prejudice is outside the bounds of God’s love. His journey into a foreign land and a foreign people is truly transformative. He is a prophetic voice, one that is counter-cultural because it challenges the prevailing attitude of xenophobia and scapegoating of the marginalised people in Israel.
Prejudice is so much a part of the human psyche, then and now, in the Church and in the society. Think of our attitude to the Protestants in the pre-Vatican II period; think of the white settlers’ view of the indigenous people; the west versus the Moslems in the post 9/11 world; the asylum seekers in Australia today. Like Jonah, we are challenged to renounce our own claim to special status to the exclusion of others; like him and his contemporaries, we are called to measure to the width of God’s inclusive universal love.
The Gospel story tells us of how Jesus goes about proclaiming the reign of the Kingdom and acting in favour of that Kingdom despite the rampant and overwhelming presence of evil. John’s arrest should serve as a warning to him. Yet instead, it is a catalyst for Jesus’ full immersion into a life of service and witness. It marks a break with the past and a launch into deeper waters of the future. Jesus refuses to sit back and allow sin, evil, injustice, oppression to crush humanity. He proclaims and acts in favour of the Kingdom of peace, justice, dignity, freedom and liberation. He calls his disciples to follow him and join him in the proclamation of the Kingdom and transformation of the world.
It is especially fitting that Jesus should begin his ministry in a location known for its multicultural mix. In choosing to minister and call his first disciples in melting pot of Galilee, Jesus shows himself a man of solidarity and a boundary-breaking rabbi quite unlike his contemporaries. Galilee of the nations is indicative of his radical, inclusive, “sans frontier” kind of love, acceptance, embrace, affirmation, compassion, forgiveness and solidarity, especially towards the most vulnerable and marginalised. His message and action, prefigured by the message and action of Jonah, lead us beyond our prejudice and into the boundless love of God.
Sisters and brothers,
Like Jonah and the disciples of Jesus, we have – by virtue of our baptism -embarked upon the journey beyond our limited horizons and our boundaries of love. May this journey of discipleship transform us into true Christians of humility, solidarity and service. May we who are the beneficiaries of God’s unstinting goodness reach out to our brothers and sisters who are being left behind in the society that favours the privileged. Let us commit ourselves to the reign of God which finds expression in the care of the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable among us. May we learn to love in the manner of God’s all-embracing love shown in Jesus Christ.