The readings for Mass on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time draw on our common human experience of being in time and moving through space. I suspect that the Holy Spirit, with one eye on the coming of a special time, Lent – no ordinary time, is challenging us as disciples of Jesus to check on the direction of our lives while we still have time!
In the Gospel of Mark, the dramatic message is being announced by Our Lord to the effect that: “The time has come and the Kingdom of God is close at hand” (Mk 1:14). Something very important, a Kingdom, is making a timely appearance in a very intimate way. You could say it is invading our personal spiritual space, virtually breathing down our necks!
This coming simply cannot be ignored by any sensible person, especially if you come from a background where people are longing for the coming of a messiah, who, tradition says, will be a son of David (see 2 Samuel 7), finally bringing about a truly Godly reign. So it follows, as night follows proverbial day, that you must respond to the following invitation: “Repent, and believe the Good News.”
The emphasis in all of the readings (with the exception of the psalm) is on a timely repentance. It is a matter of carpe diem or, seize the day, lest the opportunity pass never to return.
The prophet Jonah gives the Nasty Ninevites a forty-day ultimatum to repent, or else. And, rather surprisingly, they get the message and repent at once, from the King to the lowest peasant – even the beasts fast!
You could say that, even back then, God, the loving King of Israel, is coming close to these pagans, also part of his lovable creation. “The time has come, repent and believe the Good News of my love for you too!”
Paul, writing to the Corinthians, is also concerned with time and repentance, as he expects the return of the glorified Jesus to complete his saving work. “Our time is growing short,” he proclaims, and, “the world as we know it is passing away” so there is a need for a new way of living, one that is detached from dimensions of life which seem so vitally important to worldly folk.
We can see it as implicitly a call to repent, to change one’s attitude towards everything.
Mark goes on to tell us of the urgent call of four fishermen to follow him and the words “at once” occur twice on the lips of the Divine Master. You must change your life now, and they leave everything to become “fishers of men.”
The Scripture scholars tell us that in the Greek language of the New Testament there are two distinct words for time, with important differences of meaning.
There is Chronos time, which is ordinary clock time, with no particular significance. It is the daily routine which seems to go on and on in (often tedious) cycles.
And then there is Kairos time, which has to do with critical matters, time where something really important is at stake and when one must make a decision which may be life changing for oneself and others. It is often linked to opportunities that suddenly present themselves and which you have to grasp, lest the possibility vanish without hope of return.
Such is the time which has come close to the Ninevites (and Jonah), to the Corinthians (and Paul), and finally to the four brothers (and Jesus). Ultimately, all time is God’s, but Kairos time is a special vehicle of grace from God that can be ignored only at our peril.
We must respond asap – as soon as possible!
Turning then to the notion of repentance, there is a danger that this is understood in a narrow way as primarily turning away from sin. The case of the Ninevites in the first reading supports this interpretation, supposing them to be characteristically immoral and blind to goodness.
But when we link the call to repent with the call of the four brothers in the Gospel, the link with sin is not at all evident. If Mark had recorded the call of Levi the tax collector to be an apostle, we could say he needed to repent of his unjust lifestyle. But presumably , the fishermen are good people going about their lawful business, supporting families and so on.
Still, there is a need for repentance in the wider sense of conversion, of moving from one way of life to another. This is part of the Old Testament concept of repentance which sees it as a person turning around and going in another direction. The fishermen called by Jesus to be fishers of men must turn from living a good life to living an infinitely better one according to the principle that, “the good is often the enemy of the better.”
God has a habit in the Bible of literally “arresting” people, stopping them in their tracks, to point them in another direction. It happened to Jonah by means of a handy whale, which holds him in prison for three days before releasing him to go to Ninevah. Paul, too, gets a rude awakening on his road to Damascus and soon finds himself stopping, and sailing on an amazing missionary adventure to the Pagans. Another reluctant prophet like Jonah, but one who finds his way, his true path in life after his time of repentance.
So this remarkable conjunction of readings brings together time and repentance to challenge us in our lives, especially as we approach the holy time of Lent. We could see this time as a pilgrimage, a Kairos time, a time of opportunity to follow Jesus in bringing the Kingdom of God closer to our world. It is not just about avoiding sin and doing penance. It is about a change of mind and heart enabling us to make the right choices for our way of life.
I can think of no better summary of what I have been saying than to point to that classic poem of Robert Frost which speaks of two roads diverging in a yellow wood and a choice has to be made. Will we too take the “road less travelled by” the road of the Gospel, lived radically? For doing so will make all the difference!