January 21 – Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

For our comprehensive exam in seminary, we were given a pastoral scenario, and we were asked to write a homily responding to it. After we had submitted the homilies, we decided to see what the artificial intelligence bot, ChatGPT, would come up with. The homily it generated started pretty well: “In this reading, Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbor.” But things went downhill pretty quickly. “And you, as sinners, are in direct violation of the Church’s teachings.” The AI-generated homily might have been correct in essentials, but it lacked any sense of hope in God’s mercy.

In the First Reading, we hear about Jonah’s preaching mission to the people of Nineveh. After he runs from God’s command to preach repentance, is swallowed, and spit up by a great fish, he preaches a hopeless sermon: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” But astonishingly, this pagan city repents before Jonah can even finish preaching, and God shows them mercy.

In the Gospel, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be fishers of men. Biblical scholar John Bergsma says that this is a fulfillment of a prophecy of Jeremiah: “I will send many fishermen to catch them. After that, I will send many hunters to hunt them out from every mountain and hill and rocky crevice” (Jer 16:16). The context of the original prophecy is judgment on Israel’s idolatry. But in Jesus’ fulfillment, something surprising happens. Rather than condemning sinners, the fishermen are sent to preach repentance.

So what changes an oracle of judgment into an oracle of mercy? It is our response. We don’t change God, but He sends His messengers to preach repentance in order to change us. In both readings, we see people responding to the calls to repentance almost instantly. What moves them to respond in this way?

It is the virtue of hope. Hope looks to the future good of our eternal happiness and believes it is possible. This hope is what leads the Ninevites and the apostles to believe that God wants to show them mercy and wants a relationship with them. But how can we live the same hope in our lives?

We often think of hope as wishful thinking. But Pope Benedict XVI tells us that hope comes from the objective fact that God has come into our lives, making that future hope take root in our present. We have probably already accepted God into our lives. But this can always grow deeper so that we can truly believe that if we also turn to God in repentance of our sins, He will change us.

Unlike the AI-generated homily of my classmates, today’s readings call us to new hope in God’s mercy, not only that God wants to forgive us, but that He is longing to forgive us when we repent of our sins. It might seem impossible, but if we open our hearts to God in repentance, then He will help us the rest of the way.

Father Frank