Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: JON 3: 1-5, 10; PS 25: 4-9; I COR 7: 29-31; MK 1: 4-20
Last week, Pope Francis offered a preview of his eagerly anticipated encyclical on climate change -- to be published next June or July. While visiting the Philippines, the country most devastated by climate chaos, it wasn't that the pope merely joined the chorus of scientists, environmental activists, and those who heed them. He went much further, promising to transform the issue of climate change from a debate topic trivialized on Fox News into a matter of "faith and morals" (The phrase used by Catholics to define the area within which the pope has overriding authority.)
In doing so, Francis follows the traditions of prophets like Jonah and Jesus -- each centralized in today's liturgy of the word. Both prophets called for repentance (change of thought and action). However, the repentance they summoned pales in comparison to what the pope evidently has in mind.
Yes, the pope is a contemporary prophet. At this moment in history, he is arguably the most powerful ever in terms of his consciousness, courage, credibility and constituency. He literally embodies our best hope for "saving the world." So it's incumbent on progressives to heed, highlight and support his efforts.
With that in mind, consider today's readings about prophetic warnings and how to respond.
The first recalls the message of the Bible's fictional character Jonah. He's a reluctant ethnocentric prophet forced by God to call Israel's mortal enemy, Nineveh, to repentance. "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed" Jonah proclaimed with some delight.
Ultimately though, Jonah's ethno-centricity is frustrated when against his desires, the Ninevites quickly and unexpectedly take his message to heart, change their ways, and God repents "of the evil he had planned." In this way, the Divine One showed God's character as depicted in today's responsorial. There the psalmist says that (unlike Jonah) God is compassionate, loving, kind, good, and upright. God guides humble sinners on the path of truth -- i.e. reality as it is, not as humans would like it to be.
Jesus' proclamation was similar to Jonah's, but without that prophet's nationalist limitations. As depicted in today's gospel reading, Jesus' basic message was a call to profound change: "This is the time of fulfillment," he said. "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel." That notion of fulfillment and the nearness of God's Kingdom introduces a profound element of hope to complement Jesus' summons to repentance.
Like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, Peter and Andrew, James and John take Jesus' words to heart profoundly altering their lives. They leave their former employment as fishermen abandoning their nets, their fathers' boats and hired men. They follow instead a penniless itinerant preacher and community organizer, adopting his life of complete dependence on others for daily sustenance.
In today's second reading, Paul shows that the early church embraced Jesus' message. "Time is running out," Paul warns. It's time to prioritize the Kingdom even before family, emotional ups and downs, attachment to property -- and to the world as it is. Paul is uncompromising in his perception of the profundity of change "repentance" calls for.
However the apostle's perception is nothing like the lack of compromise called for by the historically unprecedented crisis of climate change. And this brings me back to Pope Francis and the promise of his prophetic consciousness, courage, credibility, and constituency.
Begin with Francis' consciousness. He alone among our elected thought "leaders" recognizes contemporary historical patterns -- the links between climate change, capitalism, its neo-liberal order, corporate power, income inequality, poverty, colonialism, and a host of other problems (including absence of universal education and health care). For Francis, climate change is not merely one issue among many. It is the frame which makes evident the solutions to those other issues.
More than this, the pope has the uncommon courage to identify without equivocation the cause of such problems -- neo-liberal capitalism. He says what politicians like President Obama and other heads of state (with the exception of Raul Castro of Cuba) find impossible to say. Their dependence for survival on billionaires and plutocrats render them impotent before the ideologies of unfettered markets and their "trickle-down" theories. By contrast Pope Francis terms the latter homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). (Parenthetical numbers refer to sections of "The Joy of the Gospel.")
Additionally while speaking the unspeakable, the pope enjoys tremendous credibility. With the exception of neo-liberalism's intractable apologists, the world loves and embraces the man. His efforts to distance himself from the traditional luxurious papal lifestyle, his honesty in responding to difficult questions, his humility and genuine love for the poor make him our century's most credible moral leader.
And finally, there's the pope's constituency. Unlike prophets before him (including Jesus of Nazareth) sheer numbers give Pope Francis unprecedented power to change the world. Jonah's potential respondents to his calls for repentance were only inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. In today's gospel reading Jesus' respondents were four simple fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Eventually, only a minority of poor Palestinian peasants took to heart Jesus' words. By contrast, and in virtue of his office, this pope's constituency is trans-national and world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet the pope calls "Mother" and "Sister."