“Repent, and believe the Good News!”
(Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20)
Introduction to Mass
When John the Baptist was arrested and thrown into jail for his persistent criticisms of Herod Antipas Jesus launched his own public ministry. He began his preaching with a typically prophetic appeal to the people: to repent, to turn around or re-orientate themselves to God and his Kingdom. Let's begin Mass this Sunday by acknowledging our own unwillingness to re-orientate ourselves to God, and ask God for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
Jesus began his public ministry in a tone of great urgency. He certainly saw himself as following in the footsteps of the great Jewish prophets and, as with their preaching and warnings, his announcement that God's Kingdom was at hand had two aspects to it.
There was the proclamation of God's grace, the "good news" that the time of salvation has dawned. God has come near to us and is calling us into his life.
But at the same time Jesus proclaimed God's Reign as an imminent judgement. The assumption is that men and women are far from God and in practice often live without reference to God. The time to put things right is growing short - as. St Paul emphasises in the second reading. So Jesus starts his ministry by issuing an urgent appeal for repentance.
Why was such an appeal necessary? The answer is that although we were originally made in the image of God, and although our real vocation is to live in harmony with God, our predicament is that we're separated, or alienated, from him. Our vision of things, our values and motives and our behaviour is distorted by sin, and we look for happiness and fulfilment in the wrong places.
We follow the logic of sin and we naturally, almost automatically, put ourselves first, use other people, scramble after money, power, status, selfish pleasure. Human society runs according to the law of self-interest, not the law of God's love.
But in the mind and will of God there's nothing natural about this selfish logic, and life in the Kingdom of God, to use Jesus' phrase, involves a kind of reversal of the worldly, self-seeking principles we take for granted.
When Jesus talked about money and possessions it was to advise people to give them up as much as possible. When he talked about power-relations it was to tell his followers, "this is not how it shall be among you". When he talked about differences in social status it was to say that under God's Reign "the first shall be last and the last shall be first", while the person who aspires to superiority over others must make himself the the servant of all. St. Paul, again, in the second reading, proclaims the same vision in his own language.
God's Kingdom, then, doesn't fit in neatly with the way things usually are in the world, because the way things usually are is determined by sin. And that was why Jesus not only declared the coming of God's Kingdom to be Good News, but also demanded that his listeners repent.
That means two things. First of all it means that we acknowledge our flawed nature, our tendency to allow self-interest to dominate, our refusal to attend to the demands of love: the essence of sin. Second it means an actual turning away from sin and a new willingness to immerse ourselves in God's holiness and love, which then re-order our vision and values, our motives and behaviour.
These definitions are borne out by the passage in the first reading from the prophet Jonah.
Jonah's attempts to warn the people of Nineveh about the danger threatening them was successful and, as the author puts it, they "renounced their evil behaviour". Jesus' efforts, on the other hand, didn't meet with the same success, and later in his ministry he often lamented the people's hardness of heart, their indifference and the spiritual blindness of the religious leaders.
Looking at that contrast between the reaction of the people of Nineveh and the reaction of the people Jesus preached to, we can ask ourselves: how well do we acknowledge our own need for repentance?
In the not too distant past Catholics had a reputation for being preoccupied with sin. The typical Catholic, supposedly, was miserable, anxious and guilt-ridden. Whether this reputation was deserved or not, I think we can all agree that it's definitely a thing of the past now.
The danger today is not too great a fear of damnation and neurotic guilt, but a sort of collapse into self-indulgence. Modern people like the idea that religious faith will provide them with a sense of comfort and personal wellbeing but they're not so keen on the fact that genuine holiness and closeness to God are only achieved through spiritual combat - an honest confrontation with all our unholy, un-Godly tendencies.
Let me quote something which the great German theologian Karl Rahner wrote in one of his books many years ago.
"In former times," he claimed," the differences between men were much greater than they are today. Great saints and mighty sinners stood shoulder to shoulder; and the sinners had to be threatened with fire and brimstone before they would repent."
But, in our times, he went on, "mankind seems to be characterised by an insipid mediocrity in which light and darkness flow into a sort of gloomy grey...In general, people are smugly content, are happy that they have a car and can take a summer trip...If we were to express these dangers in a few short sentences we would say: We do not have enough 'spiritual life'; we do not practice enough asceticism".
One of the interesting things about the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees which we don't always appreciate properly is that Jesus felt the Pharisees didn't take sin seriously enough. They thought too well of themselves, were too self-assured and too confident that their pious practices were pleasing to God and their sins too trivial to matter. Repentance was for other people, not for them.
It would be ironic if our correct and right-minded efforts to highlight the availability of God's salvation more than the depths of our own sinfulness ended up making us the spiritual successors of the Pharisees rather than humble disciples of Christ.
So maybe the lesson we can take from this Sunday's readings is that, just like the ordinary people of Christ's time, we need to adopt an attitude of repentance in order to genuinely hear the Good News of God's Kingdom - but that it's the people of Nineveh in Jonah's time who set us the better example in that connection.