Monday of Week 1 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

We now begin our readings from Mark’s Gospel and we will be following him for the next several weeks. Today’s reading follows immediately on the short accounts of Jesus’ baptism and temptations in the desert that Mark gives. It is the beginning of his public ministry. The reading consists of two main parts – a summary of Jesus’ teaching and the first response to it.

As the passage opens, we are told that John has been arrested (the reason for his arrest will be given later). The word for ‘arrest’ is literally ‘handed over’, a key word which will be used later of Jesus himself, his disciples, and indeed of many others down the centuries. The term is also used in our Eucharist when the celebrant at the consecration says:

This is my Body which will be given up for you.

Our translation of ‘given up’ represents the Latin word tradetur, which literally means ‘handed over’. Jesus is daily handed over to us, or rather, he hands himself over to us and expects us to do the same for our brothers and sisters.

Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the Gospel, the Good News, of God. It is summed up in the words:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

It is a deceptively simple statement which, in fact, is rich in meaning. One can say that the whole of the Gospel message is contained in those two sentences.

The following words require comment:

  • time
  • kingdom
  • repent
  • believe in
  • The time is fulfilled
    In the scripture, “time” is translated using the Greek word kairos. Specifically, kairos refers to a moment when something is ripe to happen, a serendipitous moment. And that exactly describes the appearance of Jesus, an appearance which the whole of the Old Covenant has been preparing for and leading up to.

    The Kingdom of God is at hand
    The whole of Jesus’ message centres round the idea of the ‘Kingdom of God’. It was the coming of that Kingdom which he proclaimed; it was the core of his teaching. Because of Matthew’s use of the term ‘Kingdom of heaven’, there is a possibility that we think of the ‘Kingdom’ as only belonging to the life after death. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The word ‘Kingdom’ translates the Greek word basileia, an abstract noun which is better rendered as ‘kingship’ or ‘reign’. Kingdom here does not refer to a place. It points to the ruling power of God, a power based above all on love. Wherever the love of God prevails in our world we can say that the Kingdom is there. Love essentially involves other people, so the Kingdom is not a place or an action, but a complex of harmonious and interacting relationships. Jesus came to call every single person to belong to such a world.

    We need to emphasise that the Kingdom and the Church, or the Kingdom and Christianity, do not coincide. The role of the Church is to be a sacrament of the Kingdom. It fulfils that role with varying degrees of success. There are Kingdom people everywhere, that is, people who base their lives on love and justice, on peace and freedom, who are not Christians at all – but they are Kingdom people, because their lives reflect the spirit of God. Mere membership in a Christian group does not guarantee one is a Kingdom person.

    Here we have the basic steps needed to become fully a Kingdom person. First, we need to repent. This is the most common translation of the Greek verb for the noun metanoia. It is not a very happy rendering. ‘Repent’, for most people means being sorry for something done in the past. That is not excluded here, rather metanoia looks much more to the future. Metanoia really means a radical change in one’s thinking, in this case, about the meaning and purpose of life, and how that life is to be lived. Jesus is calling here for a radical conversion, and for us to take to heart his vision of life.

    Believe in the good news
    And how is that metanoia to be achieved? By believing in the “good news” i.e. the Gospel. For many Christians, ‘belief’ means the total acceptance of the teachings of Christ as interpreted for us by the Church. But something more is asked of us here. We are asked not just to believe, but to believe in. It is one thing to believe something is true, but that belief may not affect our lives very much. In calling on us to believe in the message that the Gospel brings, we are being asked for a total investment of ourselves, and not just in accepting doctrines as true. We are being called on to live our lives and pattern them on the model of Jesus himself. Again, we will see what that entails as we go through the Gospel in coming weeks.

    The second part of the reading gives us a dramatic example of some people who did just what Jesus was asking. As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew, who were fishermen, casting their nets into the sea. They were doing their daily work. Jesus said to them:

    Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.

    There and then, they dropped their nets, their whole means of livelihood, and went after Jesus. A little further on Jesus saw two sons of Zebedee, James and John, who were mending their nets. These two Jesus also called. They promptly left their father in the boat with his hired men and followed Jesus. Later Jesus will say:

    Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

    Here we have that metanoia, that radical change of life, taking place. They follow Jesus with total trust. As they go off, they have no idea where they are going or what it will entail. They believe in Jesus, put all their trust in him. They were to meet many trials and tribulations on the way, but they never regretted the step they took. Only by following their example will we too have the same experience. The only guarantee we have is that those who did take Jesus’ call seriously and lived it to the fullest, know that they made the right choice.

    Finally, we might say that this story is to be read as a kind of parable. Because we know that later on, the disciples will still be in contact with their families and those boats will appear several times in the Gospel story. What is being emphasised here is the total commitment to the Way and vision of Jesus, which is symbolised by the total abandoning of the boats and family members.

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