Third Sunday: The Gospel of Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JON 3:1-5, 10; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 COR 7:29-31; MK 1:14-20

This week we return to the Gospel of Mark – and how classically Mark it is.  We are in verse 14 of this roaring, rushing Gospel.  Already we have met John baptizing in the wilderness; Jesus has been baptized; he has gone into the wilderness to battle (for just one verse, in Mark) with the devil; and John has been arrested.  A roaring, rushing Gospel!

And now we come to Jesus’s first words in Mark’s account: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”  Twice we have the word “Gospel”: good news, a happy message.

But this happy message is a bit unsettling: a lion’s roar.  “This is the time of fulfillment” – what does that mean?  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  Exciting, but where is this leading?  “Repent!”

Here is the key word, the same word John the Baptist had proclaimed, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance,” in verse 4.  This explains “the time of fulfillment”: now is the time of repentance, the time of conversion.  This explains “The kingdom of God is at hand”: now we will change our behavior, live as if God is king.  This explains, even, the good news: the good news is repentance, a change of heart.

The Greek metanoia, you probably know, means “a change of mind,” a new way of thinking, a new attitude.  The Latin poenitentia adds an important insight: the pain, poena, of change.

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But the real key is not in linguistics, it’s in the story.  Immediately, in the roar of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, then James and John.  “They abandoned their nets and followed him.”  “They left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

Repentance means leaving the old way of life, dropping it right where it lays, and following Jesus.  We can work back the other way.  If the good news is repentance, it’s also true that repentance means recognizing the good news: recognizing that Jesus is worth leaving everything for.  Repentance means acknowledging him as our king, accepting the Lordship of God, going his way, not ours: the kingdom of God is at hand.  There are lots of ways to fill this out – it means accepting, for example, God’s wisdom expressed in the nature of things – but most immediately, most roaringly, it means dropping our nets and following Jesus as our king.  Mark’s theme is always, let’s not get distracted: this is about following Jesus.

That is “the time of fulfillment”: the time when following Jesus becomes everything.  That’s the good news.

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Notice too, of course, that it immediately turns also to preaching the good news, evangelization.  If we accept Jesus as king, we go forth to extend his kingdom – to extend the good news of dropping everything to follow the good king.  “I will make you fishers of men.”

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That’s the theme, put boldly, in our short reading from Jonah.  The children’s story is fun, where Jonah is all about getting swallowed by a whale.  But that’s just a side issue in the real storyline of Jonah: God calls him to go forth and preach the gospel of repentance.  His reluctance – which leads, among other things, to getting swallowed by a whale – just shows us what a radical repentance that gospel calls us to undertake.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” is Jonah’s good news.  This is the drama of the good news: it’s good news because the opposite is bad news.  Not to follow Jesus, to remain in our old ways, is destruction, annihilation – not because God imposes nastiness on an otherwise happy Nineveh, but because without Jesus we are lost.

So they “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . . They turned from their evil way.”  That is the good news of repentance: it looks a little rough, and that’s often the point: we are so inclined to sit in our boats and miss the One Necessary Thing that the call to follow Jesus feels like pain, poenitentia.  But he calls us to the gospel, to freedom from the emptiness that is life without him.

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And that is the meaning, too, of our reading from First Corinthians: “the world in its present form is passing away.”  That’s not an imposition: all earthly splendor fades.  It just does.  When Paul calls “those rejoicing” to act “as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully,” it’s not that he’s tearing them away from joy.  He’s tearing them away from what cannot satisfy, and calling them to the good news.

But the good news means repentance, a change, a tearing away, from emptiness to fullness of life.

Are there parts of your life where it’s hard to see how repentance, following Jesus, is good news?

eric.m.johnston

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