The Gospel for January 22nd, 2017: “The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry”
Reflection: Why is Repentance the Central Message?
“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4: 17).
In his talk on the CD “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself,” Matthew Kelly reflects on John the Baptist’s call to repentance, asking aloud about the meaning of this powerful word. He concludes that it means to turn back to God. Furthermore, Kelly points out that to turn back to God, one needs to turn away from something, typically a coveted attachment—a sin.
Why is this the message as Jesus begins His ministry? It is literally the same message John preaches when he goes out to the desert in Chapter 3 of Matthew’s gospel (2). In addition, I find it noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t alter the message in light of John’s imprisonment. He doesn’t think it so risky that it needs to be changed. Granted, Jesus has much more to say than this point in the preaching that follows, much of it more aesthetically beautiful and less demanding in its content. I am thinking of the poetry of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount or the simplifying of the commandments into the pairing of love for God and neighbor. Why isn’t one of these messages the starting point and thesis for Jesus’ ministry?
I think the reason is those others do not directly ask the believer to make a change. Few will argue or contest talk of love and beauty in this new kingdom until they are asked to give up something they hold especially dear, something they believe they cannot live without. Think of the apostles called in this gospel who are asked by Jesus to give up their livelihood and sense of identity as fisherman to accept an unfamiliar life as “fishers of men” (Matthew 4: 19). A believer who answers God’s call, even for a moment, has just given up his or her will for God’s will. This is the essence of faith in and unity with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
That may be fine in the abstract, but the problem is believers cannot last in the state of repentance in this world corrupted by original sin. One moment of submission to God’s plan is soon to be replaced by a selfish plan in the unforeseen future. This is ubiquitous problem of life on Earth for which Mosaic legalism did not have a complete answer. How frustrating is it that the reward of obeying one of God’s demands, be it to fast or give alms to the poor or to care for a sick relative, does not absolve one from future sacrifices in the face of temptation? The answer is very frustrating! Perhaps for many us, frustrating enough to give trying and lose faith entirely. It really appears easier to just live for a few moments of pleasure in this life and give up the dream of sainthood.
But a life centered on Hedonism does not bring sustainable happiness. And as we grow older and lose many of the physical abilities that have provided small moments of pleasure throughout our lives, we realize we cannot give up the dream of sainthood and the hope of an eternity with our Creator who loves us as nothing on Earth can. The answer to this existential problem is Jesus, who knows the pervasiveness and hold of sin and conquered it for us with His death and resurrection. But how do we enjoy this mysterious gift? Repent! Turn back to God again and again and again…. In other words, we keep trying to maintain a relationship with our Savior that is based on the unselfish love for His creation that He modeled. In that effort and submission to His will, we will be ready when He calls us from this life, whether that call comes surprisingly at a young age or at the end of a long, checkered life.
Recall the description from Jesus of the moment of judgment in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’
The message of repentance is central because it ensures we will be turned to our Lord at the unforeseen moment we are called from this world. Despite our sins, we will know Him through repeated contact from prayer, worship, witness, and ministry—all the moments where we put our selfishness aside momentarily and turn to God in faithful surrender, despite our sinfulness. The perfection of saintliness is a static state that can be obtained by our own doing, rather it is gifted to us by Jesus in our repeated effort toward repentance to Him and from sin. Repentance is a disposition as much as it is a task.
We must keep trying for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The time and place of our departure may be a mystery to us. But the pathway that is “at hand” lives in our hearts, in our Church, and in God’s creation if we keep turning back to Jesus, rejecting the sin that is in our faces, and picking up the cross that conquered death. Asking Jesus for help and forgiveness is the one thing that every sinner can do, regardless of his or her past sins. The message of repentance should give every person hope for salvation from death and despair.