Jonah 3:1-5, 10 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
A CALL TO REPENTANCE
In gospel text which we have just proclaimed, Jesus treats two major issues: he calls his listeners to repentance; and then he calls the first four of his disciples. Today, however, I propose that we reflect on the theme of “the call to repentance”. The theme of repentance is very evident in the First Reading and in the Gospel of today’s liturgy. In the gospel, Jesus opens his proclamation of the GOOD NEWS with A CALL TO REPENTANCE. “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.” Incidentally, John the Baptist did the same thing. We are told by St. Matthew that John began his proclamation with a call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mtt 3:2). For both Jesus and John the Baptist, repentance was a prerequisite for welcoming the kingdom of God. Those who fail or refuse to repent would be excluded from the kingdom of God. In the first reading, it is evident that repentance is vital for every human being, even for so-called unbelievers, such as the people of Nineveh, to whom the prophet Jonah was sent. In spite of the fact that they were not believers in the One God, God sent Jonah to call them to repentance. They heeded and were saved.
- THE NEED FOR REPENTANCE
Jesus did summon the people to repentance. He showed that repentance is necessary for all who need salvation. However, a keen observation of the reality of our Christian world today shows that most popular gospel preachers on television tend to talk exclusively about how to “enjoy life more fully” rather than talk about sin, repentance, and judgment. None of us wants to hear that we need to make changes in our life. Jesus talked about such difficult and “unpleasant” things frequently. He did so not because he had a negative outlook on life, but because he knew that people could not become right with God unless they recognized that they were heading in the wrong direction. No one will embrace a Saviour until he/she becomes convinced that he/she needs to be saved from something! That “something” is SIN!
- WHAT IS REPENTANCE?
Repentance always has two sides to it: one negative, the other positive. In its negative aspect, repentance is a TURNING AWAY FROM SIN. That is a rejection of everything that is contrary to the will of God, everything that is contrary to the gospel. Positively, repentance is a TURNING TOWARDS GOD. That is what Jesus meant with the phrase, “believe in the Gospel”. Both of these are what we normally promise at baptism, when we say that we reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises; and go on to profess faith in the Triune God (One God, there Persons), the Church and so on.
Going to the root of the term, the Greek word for repentance literally means “a change of mind”. People find it convenient to confuse the ‘sorrow for the consequence of sin’ and ‘sorrow for sin’. When someone says he/she is sorry for a sin committed, most of the time the person is actually sorry because of the mess into which that sin has gotten him/her, knowing fully well that if he/she was sure to escape the consequences, he/she would do the same thing again. In this case, it is not the sin that he/she hates; it is the consequences. Real repentance means that one has come, not only to be sorry for the consequences of one’s sin, but to hate SIN ITSELF. Repentance means a person who was in love with sin has come to hate sin because of its appalling nature. In this respect, there are two dimensions to repentance:
- a) The first involves humiliation before God because of our sin. “When the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5) The Ninevites humiliated themselves before God; they brought themselves low before the Lord. Here lies a problem: as said before, we live at time when the definition of sin is rather slippery. Many people are blind to sin. Like the Israelites in the time of the book of Joshua, “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” (Joshua 9:25) We hear people saying all the time, “Who are you to judge me?” On the other hand, the repentance required for salvation necessitates that we measure ourselves not with the standards of the society around us, but by the Word of God. In other words, we are to look at our behaviour and accept God’s judgment of that behaviour. If God declares WRONG something that society accepts and cherishes, we must acknowledge that God is right, and that society is wrong. If God says something is proper when the world says it is not, we must accept God’s standard. We cannot truly repent until we come to God on his own terms rather than our own.
The repentant person looks at his/her life (his/her actions, motives, heart) and comes to God as a humble and broken person because of his/her sin. A repentant person does not justify, excuse, or try to redefine his/her sin. He/she sees it clearly as an offense to a Holy God. He/she understands that he/she has rebelled against God, and so confesses his/her rebellious attitude and scandalous behaviour. The repentant comes to God as one who is sick in need of healing. That is what Jesus expects of each and every one of us, when he calls for repentance.
- b) The second dimension to repentance constitutes a desire to change direction. It is a known fact that many people who serve time in jail end up returning to jail. Why? Because nothing has fundamentally changed inside such persons! They have served their time but they have not changed their ways. On the other hand, the person who is truly rehabilitated has a new heart, a new focus, and a new way of doing things. The person who truly repents is like the rehabilitated criminal.
In like manner, if one is truly repentant about driving too fast, he/she would start driving slower! If one is repentant for slandering another person, one would stop attacking that person with his/her words! If one were truly repentant for stealing money, he/she would stop stealing and begin paying back what was stolen. True repentance involves a change in direction! Take the example of Zacchaeus the tax collector, accused of stealing from the poor: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back fourfold.’” (Lk 19:8).
- REPENTANCE HAS TWO IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS
- a) Repentance is hard to be accepted; it is not easy for someone to repent. Very often, we shift blame when there is a conflict. Part of this comes from the fact that we do not want to believe that we are evil enough to have done what we did. The only way to deal with that discord in our soul is to redefine what we did as a justified response to what someone else first did to us. Therefore, sin becomes someone else’s (even God’s) fault, never ours. To repent is to stand up and admit that “I am guilty. I am the one responsible and I am wrong.”
- b) It is not hard to understand what repentance is. Imagine a situation where we hurt someone else by our actions and are truly sorry. We will go to that person and acknowledge the wrong that we have done. We would recognize how our actions have hurt and wounded that person. Because of that, we would adopt a humble posture that says, “I will do whatever is necessary to repair this situation and make things right”. That is the kind of attitude we are to take before God when we repent. God is not fooled by a repentance that is only concerned with avoiding punishment. Like little children, we are often sorry only until the crisis passes and then we go back to “life as before”. True humiliation before God desires real change not simply a lessening of a crisis.
- REPENTANCE IS LIFE-LONG
Repentance is not something that people do once and for all. In fact, it is a life-long project. To be a good disciple of Jesus and a true Christian, we must be repenting every day of our lives on earth. Every day, we must be saying “NO” to sin, which is all too pervasive in our world, and saying “YES” to God and his kingdom. In repenting, we need not always put it into words. But it must be manifest in the way in which we live our lives. Our lives should reflect a permanent attitude, a way of life, rather than a mere verbal statement or a wish to be a better person.
Therefore, a repentant person must guard against falling, by always doing a personal inventory of his/her life. In this regard, we should ask ourselves: What practices of mine are inconsistent with the gospel of Christ? What things do I do which dishonour God’s name? We should honest with ourselves here! Such a process hurts, but it is necessary. Look at your vocabulary, your thought life, your passions, your priorities. Look at the way you are at church and compare it to the way you are with your friends, away from church. Is there inconsistency there? Where necessary, make positive changes! When we do that, our relationship with God will be richer and our joy will be greater. For this reason, we can say that a repentant person is a NEW CREATION. St. Paul puts it succinctly: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) This is the kind of person who will be part in the Kingdom that Christ proclaims today.
- AFTER REPENTANCE, WHAT NEXT?
In order to live a righteous life, after a true repentance, St. Paul elaborately instructs us following the words of the second reading of today. We must live in a manner that is different from world standards. Seeing themselves to be citizens of heaven, yet having to live in the world, believers often feel a conflict with life in the world. They are somewhat like fish living out of water. Christian values and ways of doing things vary considerably from those of the world around us. How do we resolve this conflict, in order to remain always pure in the sight of God? Throughout history, Christians have responded to this conflict in three ways.
- a) First, there are those who respond by conforming to the world around them. Their motto is: “If you cannot beat them, join them.” Such Christians may still participate enthusiastically at Holy Mass, but in their thinking, values, and priorities in life, there is no difference between them and the non-believers around them. Paul condemns this approach outrightly. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2).
- b) Others respond by trying to flee from the world. For instance, some of the early monastic movement and spirituality were driven by a desire to isolate oneself from the world so as to draw near to God. According to this spirituality, the way to be holy and to embrace the New Kingdom of Christ is to shun contact with society and one’s fellow human beings. This might have worked for some hermits several centuries ago, but it is definitely not intended for the vast majority of Christians today. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is that they remain in the world even though they do not belong to it. “The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:14-15).
- c) The third way of responding to the conflict of living by Christian principles in a corrupt world is the most demanding and the most faithful to the teachings of Christ. It is based on the principle of being IN THE WORLD but NOT OF THE WORLD. In one word, we can call it “DETACHMENT”. This is what St. Paul is teaching us in today’s Second reason. (Re-read the text!)
In that text, St. Paul is not urging a flight from the world. He is not saying that people should stop marrying, buying and selling or dealing with the world. He is saying that whereas Christians should engage in these necessary activities, they should go about them with a spirit of detachment. As a repentant people, they should go about these occupations without investing their heart and soul, their hope and confidence, in these things. In other words, St. Paul is expounding what Christ himself taught: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
The reason why we should not place our confidence in any worldly possession is because the world as we know it, and everything in it, is passing away. In the end the only wealth that will be of value to us on judgment day is the wealth of righteousness that we have accumulated through the acts of faith and love that we have done. In this new year, let us resolve to be close to God, to be nourished, guided and enlightened by the light of God’s Word while engaging in all the legitimate activities and duties that God has given us in this world – duties in the family, at our places of work or at school, in the community, in the church and in our world. In this way, we would be truly repenting, and believing in the gospel; “for the kingdom of God is at hand”.