‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.’ (Mark 1: 15)
St. Mark’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus is the most succinct of all the accounts in the New Testament. He is economical in his choice of words and direct in presenting his ideas. He makes little effort to interpret the events for the reader. There are no long explanations and monologues as there are in St. John’s Gospel. Instead the Evangelist allows events and the words of our Lord to speak for themselves. Whoever hears this story must understand and respond.
To that end a great deal of material is dealt with in a mere six verses. This is not because St. Mark is presenting a gloss or avoiding pertinent issues, but simply because he wants to take the reader to the heart of the action where he or she can immediately be involved. He wants to engage the reader in matters of salvation by declaring the truth as he sees it.
First, there is the commissioning of Jesus, the baptism at which his true nature as the beloved Son is revealed. The Evangelist avoids the stories about the nativity, both that of the Baptist and that of Jesus himself. He takes us straight to the heart of the action. Jesus arrives from Galilee and is baptised. A theophany occurs: the Baptist sees heaven torn open and the Spirit descending; he hears from God himself who Jesus really is. The truth is declared.
Secondly, there is a time of preparation which involves testing and conflict. It happens ‘immediately’ and in St. Mark’s account any thoughts about the reaction of the bystanders at the River Jordan or further comment are omitted. Such additions might have been interesting, but they are not required for St. Mark’s purposes. What he wants to do is describe a time of crisis in which Jesus prepares for his ministry by prayer and fasting whilst at the same time battling with the ancient adversary who attempts to thwart God’s purposes at every opportunity. The image that is presented is a primal one: a man alone except for the company of the heavenly and of the lesser beings. The Evangelist sees the sole representative of humanity engaged in his calling, an image which will be recaptured later on Calvary. We are encouraged to interpret the story in cosmic terms and with universal consequences.
Thirdly, the reader is invited to discover the fruit of all that has happened so far: Jesus arrives to proclaim the Kingdom. ‘The time is fulfilled’, he says, a phrase echoed in St. John’s Gospel as ‘the hour cometh, and now is’. Here in Galilee Jesus is proclaiming the sovereignty of God who is creator and king. The day of salvation is drawing near and it is time for all men to repent and turn back to God. No qualification is offered so that some may choose an alternative path. No exemption is offered for those who are already privileged to know God. Repentance is required of all who would enter the Kingdom. This is how it is done.
Some have wondered whether Jesus is inaugurating a revolution. Those who comment on modern European history and especially the politics of the last 250 years often speak in terms of revolution. From the time of the French Revolution onwards such an approach to change has been frequently observed especially where Marxist ideology has been present. Revolution is seen to be the way to get things done, sweeping away the old and bringing in the new. This sort of thinking and the language associated with it has become so commonplace that it has challenged the Biblical view of the world. For many (who do not necessarily realise it) it has replaced the Biblical view. Some commentators would (and have) looked at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel and seen Jesus the Revolutionary as if the idea of revolution is the only one which can explain such an event.
Whilst there is certainly change afoot as Jesus begins his ministry, there is no thought of revolution in the way we understand the word now. What Jesus is offering is not revolution, but realisation. He is making a bold statement about how things are in the world and how men relate to God: he is declaring the truth. God is the sovereign creator who demands obedience from his people and yet who, in the absence of that obedience, is prepared to come to them in love and mercy in order that they might be saved. None of this is revolutionary – such language is best avoided here – rather it is a declaration of the reality of existence. God’s sovereignty is a reality: that is just how things are. Nothing has changed.
Where there is change of course it is on the part of men who are challenged, not to join a revolution, but to see things as they really are and to begin to live in harmony with that reality. To any individual the acceptance of the Gospel may have revolutionary consequences, but the truth of the Kingdom remains constant. Secular terminology cannot effectively describe it.
The challenge of Lent is to see the story of the Gospel afresh, recognising that in it the reality of God and our existence under him is set out. The challenge is to begin to understand that reality and then to begin to fit into it: to see the place we have in creation and to rejoice that we do not have to drift aimlessly through life, but can fit into God’s plan. In this we find our salvation. For this reason St. Peter is able to write about Jesus (from this morning’s epistle),
Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. (1 Peter 3: 22)
In his account St. Mark tells us what happens when Jesus begins his ministry, but he is also telling us what already is: he is describing the truth about God and our human existence. And all of it in six verses!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
21st February 2021
Image by Thomas Vogel on Unsplash