ON THIS THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME we hear Jesus proclaiming “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). For many people the word “repent” does not have a very pleasant ring to it, especially when it is spoken in a command, as in today’s Gospel. There are probably many reasons for this, not the least of which is the pervasive impression that repentance is a highly charged emotional trauma that one is supposed to go through at some public revival meeting. But that is hardly the biblical norm. For example look at today’s Gospel, where the Lord encounters His future Apostles, and, after He has proclaimed repentance, Jesus simply calls to them and invites them to follow Him. And what do they do? They just lay aside their fishing nets and leave their boats, their father – that is, they turn away from their old life and follow Christ at His invitation (and command). Our Lord Himself gave an almost prosaic description of repentance in His story about the two sons, recorded by St. Matthew. “’What do you think?,’ Jesus asked the religious leaders of His time, ‘A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ ‘The first.’ ‘Truly, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you.’” There is repentance, exemplified in the first son: he is disobedient to his father, then changes his mind, and he goes to work in the vineyard. Thus this story reveals to us where the real difficulty – of differing degrees for different people – of repentance is. As the word itself shows us – that repentance involves a change of mind that leads to a new direction in one’s life – the difficulty is in the human mind and will, not at all in the emotions, which should, if they serve their proper purpose, help move us toward what is right and good. The mind must recognize the truth, and the will must turn around, forsaking the old way, and follow that truth. It is rather easy, even if sometimes traumatic, to make a mere emotional response to God. People do it quite often. Our Lord described this response too in His parable about the sower and the seeds, how that some seed fell on rocky, shallow ground; and the seed germinated very quickly and sprouted up, but because the plant had so little root, it quickly dried up and died. The truth had not taken up residence in the mind of the would-be convert, and the will had not really moved to submit to and follow that truth. So here is the difficulty or challenge, perhaps, of repentance. One must change his or her mind about all our personal and professional agendas, ideologies, and preferences of lifestyle and worldviews that war against the timeless truths of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of His Catholic Church. Like the fishing nets and boats in today’s Gospel, they must be cast aside. Then each of us must do what the psalmist prays – “Teach me your ways, oh Lord – and armed with divine wisdom and truth go out and work in the vineyard. Each of us must follow Christ, not the way of the world. And, such a change of mind and heart is a redirection of the will which calls for penance – something we often confuse with repentance itself. Rather, penance is that outward expression of a changed heart and mind, the exterior act following the Sacrament of Reconciliation that signifies and solidifies the new resolve to believe what is true and to begin to try to live in the light of that truth. We see it in the first reading, where the people of Nineveh, after hearing the warning of the prophet Jonah: “…when the people of Nineveh believed God[,] they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” And God saw “by their actions” – the scriptural account tells – “how they turned from their evil way….” So, folks, we might think that repentance is not so easy. Well, neither is anything else that people deem really important and worthwhile in this life. And precisely here is the urgency of repentance: that most of what people tend to live for, give themselves to, achingly strive for are the very things that keep them from engaging in this ultimate endeavor of repentance. “For this world,” St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “in its present form is passing away.” Conversely, what is not passing away, what will remain forever, is exactly what the road of repentance would lead us to. “This is the time of fulfillment,” Jesus preached. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” If left to ourselves, this all would indeed be too difficult for us; but we are not left to ourselves. Like the future disciples in today’s Gospel, we too have an encounter with Christ, who calls out to us, “Come after me….” That same voice with the same enabling grace and power of God echoes strongly through time and rings out clearly every time the Gospel is read and preached, every time a Sacrament is celebrated, every time, too, there is that disturbing movement of remorse and dissatisfaction in the conscience – God at work among us to draw us to Himself and into the joy of His kingdom.
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