Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Kingdom Makes Repentance Attractive (Sunday 3.A)

Dale Carnegie published the self-help book How to Win Friends and to Influence People almost eighty years ago. And about sixty years ago there was a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that became a Broadway musical and a movie.

Imagine if Jesus asked those authors for some advice. Would he have started his ministry by saying “Repent”? It’s a fair bet the modern experts would have come up with a better opening line. After all, nobody wants to repent.

Or is that too quick a conclusion? Let’s look more closely at what Jesus said; perhaps repentance is more attractive than we might think.

And let’s also look at what happened when he said it: hardworking fishermen walked away from the security of their nets and followed him. Something clicked when they heard Christ’s call to repentance.

Jesus did not, of course, tell people to repent, period. He gave them a reason: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Books and books have been written about what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, but let’s think about what Peter and Andrew and James and John heard.

They heard a promise. Oppressors were the only earthly kings they knew about. The kingdom of heaven must have opened up the possibility of something wonderful—they could become subjects of a sovereign who was “out of this world,” to use the slang an earlier time.

And they saw Someone. They saw in the face of Jesus that heaven was a lot nearer than they had thought. There was a light shining there that excited these four fishermen. The kingdom of heaven was near because Jesus was near. Words alone couldn’t have captivated them so thoroughly.

When was the last time any of us thought about the kingdom of God? I heard about a bishop who was questioning a confirmation class about the kingdom of God, and the answers were so hopeless he gave up and asked, “Well, what did Jesus say about marriage?” This time he got a quick answer from one child who said “forgive them, for they know not what they do”!

We’d do better on the marriage question, I’m sure, but most of us have a pretty thin idea of the kingdom. And yet all the scripture scholars agree that “Jesus gives the kingdom of God the first place in his preaching.”* Obviously, this is something we need to understand.

It’s clear that the kingdom of heaven is not just another way of speaking about heaven, since Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” There is something immediate about the kingdom, even if it’s clear that there’s a future dimension as well.

As Pope Francis wrote in his letter on The Joy of the Gospel, “Let us believe the Gospel when it tells us that the kingdom of God is already present in this world and is growing, here and there, and in different ways: like the small seed which grows into a great tree (cf. Mt 13:31-32), like the measure of leaven that makes the dough rise (cf. Mt 13:33) and like the good seed that grows amid the weeds (cf. Mt 13, 24-30) and can always pleasantly surprise us.”

What the kingdom means is a profound mystery revealed only by Jesus, who makes it known step by step or piece by piece through his miracles, his parables, and his own life and death.

When Christians speak about “mystery,” they don’t mean a secret or a puzzle that has to be solved. But we do mean something that’s not obvious to everyone; in his preaching he distinguished those capable of understanding his teaching from those whose hardness of heart blocked their comprehension.

How can we know the meaning of the kingdom of heaven? How can we experience the promise that moved the first Apostles to follow Jesus without hesitating?

The answer’s fairly clear: we must repent. And not for fear of fire and brimstone, but in awe and wonder as we think about the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of light—St. Matthew helpfully spells that out by repeating the words of Isaiah. That light shines into the hearts of people when they repent.

One scholar puts this beautifully by explaining that Jesus was not content just to preach the kingdom of God. He began to make it a reality. He made it a reality by calling people to the conversion that made it possible to experience the freedom that is granted to citizens of his kingdom. He made it a reality by inviting humanity to turn away from those things that lead towards the kingdom of darkness instead of the kingdom of light.

The Pope’s letter on the Joy of the Gospel reminds us that the kingdom makes a difference not only to the individual but the entire community: “To the extent that [Christ] reigns within us,” the Holy Father says, “the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.”

In one short sentence, he sums it all up: “The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world.”

When you come down to it, isn’t that what it means to repent—to love God who reigns in our world? To repent is not to hang down your head in shame, but to lift it high and walk into the light. Perhaps repentance is more attractive than we think
* Dictionary of Biblical Theology, "Kingdom," p. 293.

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