Fourth Sunday: More on the Gospel of Repentance

Life has been really hectic, so this week, my reflection on the Sunday readings comes the day after.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 18:15-20; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 COR 7:32-35; MK 1:21-28

Last Sunday we saw the first appearance of Jesus in Mark’s “roaring, rushing” Gospel.  Jesus appears saying, “repent!”  The disciples follow.  In Mark, everything is direct and to the point.

This week we read the very next verses of Mark, chapter 1, and the rush continues.  “Immediately” (that’s one of Mark’s favorite words) after Peter and Andrew, James and John join him, Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum, and teaches with authority.  And immediately a demon recognizes him, and Jesus silences him.

It’s all the more dramatic if you have a red-letter Bible (where the words of Jesus are in red).  Jesus’s first words (last week) are “repent and believe.”  His second words (also last week) are “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  And his third words (this week) are to the demon: “be silent and come out of him!”

“I know who you are!”  “Be silent!”  That’s a strange way to open the Gospel.  Right from the start Jesus is preventing those who would reveal who he “really is.”

***

There are various ways to answer the classic question, why does Jesus silence those who know him?  (He does it to demons, those cured, those who see him transfigured, etc.)  Here, let us focus on our readings: how does the Bible, read liturgically, answer our question?

First, notice that this whole Gospel reading is about his “teaching with authority” – that phrase precedes and follows the silencing of the demon.  (Mark likes this structure; I think scholars call it a “sandwich.”)

The first time, he is teaching in the synagogue: teaching them the meaning of the Old Testament, teaching them the way of life of God’s people.  The second time, “He commands even the unclean spirits”: he conquers the unclean spirits.

Putting this together with last week’s reading, we could say, Jesus is talking to them about repentance.  In a sense, the way Mark sets things out, we might say that Jesus doesn’t want to talk about himself until he has talked about us.

Profession of faith is the culmination of Mark’s Gospel: at the Cross, the Centurion is the first to fully profess that Jesus is “the Son of God.”  But that profession can only go with a full understanding of its moral implications.  First, its implications for Jesus: who he is cannot be separated from his willingness to die.

But also its implications for us: who he is should not “get in the way of” our seeing that he calls us to repentance.  To the contrary, the whole point of his coming is to change us.  Beware the one who says “Lord, Lord” but doesn’t embrace the moral transformation (symbolized by his synagogue preaching and his victory over demons) that that profession really entails.

***

The other two readings take us in this direction.  The reading from Deuteronomy simply underlines the importance of “a prophet like you”: “to him you shall listen” – whereas it seems the people have a hard time listening to the unmediated word of God.

Reading this back into the Gospel, it’s important to encounter Jesus as man – even as “moral teacher.”  Yes, we must worship him.  But that can’t mean “faith alone,” can’t mean that we profess him as Lord but ignore his call on our life.

Rather, we can only understand why God becomes man, and what his salvation really means, if we see that he comes to walk as a man – in righteousness, even to death – and that he comes to teach men to be men, to proclaim a Gospel of repentance.

Put another way, beware orthodoxy without love, people who give the right “doctrinal” answer but don’t care about living it out authentically.  The demons do that!  Not everyone whose doctrine is orthodox is a true Christian, or a good teacher.

***

And that means, too, living it out practically.  Our second reading is from 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s discourse on marriage and celibacy.  Here, Paul would spare us the “distractions” of marriage.  It’s a funny pairing with this Gospel.

But read it this way: Paul’s advice isn’t about orthodoxy.  It’s (dare I use the word) “pastoral.”  You don’t have to be celibate.  But Paul says, look, get beyond the rules, and think about how you can really pursue “the things of the Lord,” not “the things of the world.”

Some of us try to do that in marriage – fine! says Paul.  But don’t get so stuck on having professed the right rules that you miss the deeper importance of following with your whole heart.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”  This is the good news.

Are there any ways that you are more worried about “being right” (like the demon in our Gospel) than with following Christ with your whole heart?

eric.m.johnston

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