In my 20 years as coordinator of the team ministry in a North Jersey parish, we 11 members (three priests, one deacon, two Sisters, and five lay men and women) would meet twice a month to plan the activities of the parish and to review how things were progressing and learn how we might work together more closely. Twice a year we would go to a retreat house for an all-day session. At one of those meetings in the mid-90s we chose as an overriding theme for the coming Lent the slogan, “Let It Begin with Me.” Our hope was that we and the people we served would accept that invitation and apply it first of all to our actions and attitudes in the pursuit of peace in this troubled world.
One of the priests with whom I shared the rectory in that parish was always quick to offer his assistance when he thought that I was having a difficult or over-crowded day. When I would thank him for his brotherly thoughtfulness, he’d say jokingly, “Ah, forget it. I’m just piling up graces.” He used the expression in jest, of course, but that is the way many people seem to think: that the good we do is like an investment that we can cash in on later! A matter of quid pro quo.
But what leaps out at us from today’s Scripture readings is the idea of response to God — response that is definite, sincere, and generous. St. Paul was dead wrong about the world coming to an end not long after the time he wrote the letter of which we heard a small part today. But his emphasis that we not allow anything to stand in the way of doing what God directs us to do is as valid now as it was then. God’s will is not found in a book; it is discovered only through prayerful — sometimes painful — interior listening.
The brief story about Jonah in today’s first reading picks up long after his refusal to do God’s bidding; we meet him only after he had finally said yes.
And, in the Gospel, those apostles who dropped everything, including the fishing nets by which they earned their living, and followed Jesus are the same men who later on shamefully deserted him as he moved toward his violent death.
We can feel at home in such company as we recall our own infidelities! And yet, like those imperfect persons, we also believe in Jesus, whom we recognize as our most direct link to the unseen God. What should be our response to God?
Our response to God has to be, as was theirs, a radical, lifelong commitment to conversion — a lifelong process that ends only when we die. We don’t have to continue the destructive behavioral patterns we seem to be stuck with now, or the bad relationships we have with certain other persons, or the negative view of life that has become habitual to us, and so on.
An American professional athlete wrote several years ago that, for him, prayer is just asking what God would have him do. Not a bad definition, I’d say.
We can’t stop war and put peace in its place. But we are responsible for the development of our own individual lives. God has given us Jesus as the perfect model for human life along with God’s own Spirit, the same Spirit that Jesus recognized and collaborated with throughout his life.
A simple prayer, but much to be recommended, might go like this: “Change me, God, make me what you want me to be. Give me the wisdom to hear your voice and the courage to follow it.
“Let it begin with me!”