Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous short story, A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes provides his assistant Dr. Watson with an important lesson on the difference between seeing and observing. Watson is amazed at the ability of Holmes to make clear and well, elementary, something that at first seems impenetrable.
Holmes invites Watson to consider an example: the number of stairs from the entrance at 221-B Baker Street up to Holmes’ flat on the second floor. Watson confesses that while he has gone up those stairs hundreds of times, he has no idea how many there are.
"Quite so!” Holmes concludes. “You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed."
Watson then reflects on their conversation:
The exchange really shook me. Feverishly, I tried to remember how many steps there were in our own house, how many led up to our front door (I couldn't). And for a long time afterward, I tried to count stairs and steps whenever I could, lodging the proper number in my memory in case anyone ever called upon me to report. I'd make Holmes proud (of course, I'd promptly forget each number I had so diligently tried to remember - and it wasn't until later that I realized that by focusing so intently on memorization, I'd missed the point entirely and was actually being less, not more observant).
We could say the same about this new day on the Church calendar, Word of God Sunday, which Pope Francis instituted in 2019 and designated for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Some might accuse the Pope of a certain amount of liturgical redundancy. After all, isn’t every Sunday—indeed every day—a day for the word of God? But just as Dr. Watson could see and not observe, too often we hear but do not listen. We can take the word of God for granted, even in the liturgy.
That’s why Pope Francis in his motu proprio establishing this special day asked us to pause and specially enthrone the Bible in the church; to reflect on the importance of the Bible in our spiritual lives; to remember that God’s word is a gift for all of us; to see it as a bridge in our ecumenical relations; and to recall the vital link between the Scriptures and the sacraments. In the Mass that link is especially evident in the two major parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Our readings today call us to observe the importance of God’s word in our continued need for conversion. As we all know from experience, conversion is not so much an event but rather a process. Our readings describe three important elements of that process: (1) It has a larger purpose; (2) It doesn’t always go the way we expect or desire; (3) It requires a sense of urgency.
Jesus put the word of God at the service of his mission to proclaim the kingdom of God. In our gospel reading, the Lord proclaims, “This is the time of fulfillment; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What John the Baptist had been preparing the people for was now coming to fruition.
While it will not reach its completion until the end of time, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaimed is not only something for the future but also something for here and now. It’s not a place but rather a state of being in which we freely and lovingly submit to God’s rule over us and allow his grace to operate in us. The repentance that Jesus preached—a change of heart, mind, and behavior toward what God desires for us—is intended to help us live more fully as citizens of the kingdom.
Submitting to God’s will isn’t always easy—just ask Jonah! After trying to run away from the Lord’s call to preach to the hated and pagan Ninevites, Jonah finally relents…but only after being thrown overboard, spending three days in the belly of a fish, and getting spit up on shore. To his frustration and embarrassment, Jonah then witnesses the Ninevites, from the king to the cattle, respond with a deep and prompt repentance that neither he nor his fellow Israelites matched when God and God’s prophets spoke to them. As Jesus would later show with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, sometimes the least likely people are the ones who best show us how to follow him.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul turns their attention to something we sometimes forget: “the world in its present form is passing away.” We can say the same thing about ourselves! (If you don’t believe it, take a good look in the mirror tomorrow morning.) Rather than lament this passing, let’s take the opportunity to appreciate it and gain wisdom from it—to not merely see but to observe, to not only hear but to listen. May the word of God be alive in us. +