First reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 24(25):4-9.
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20.
Link to readings.
Today we begin the sequence of readings from Mark’s Gospel, the proper Gospel of Year B. Appropriately, the Gospel for the day, Mark 1:14-20, offers a summary statement of the inaugural preaching of Jesus (1:14-15) and his call of the first four disciples (1:16-20).
Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist has been arrested. The epoch of John’s witness has come to a close: he has preached, and he has been “delivered up”, a harbinger of the fate that will also await Jesus as the cost of proclaiming the Gospel.
The “Gospel of God’ that Jesus begins to proclaim is essentially a message of freedom. It takes (Second) Isaiah”s “good news” (“gospel”) of freedom for Israel exiled in Babylon (Isa 40:9; 41:7; 42:7-8; 61:1) and applies this to the liberation associated with the onset of the “Kingdom” or “Rule of God”. Instead of captivity in Babylon, what is presupposed in Jesus” proclamation of the Kingdom is the sense that human beings currently labour under the opposing “rule” of Satan, manifest in multiple captivities of body and spirit. Jesus comes as the Son of God, empowered by the Spirit (1:10), to wrest human beings from captivity to the demonic and reclaim them for God’s rule, that is, for the original and abiding intent of the Creator for human life. From the start, then, Mark”s Gospel portrays Jesus as locked in a mighty conflict with the with the demonic, best understood as referring to controlling forces of various kinds—all that stunts human lives, alienating them from a life-giving relationship with God and their true humanity. On the individual level we can think, not only of sin as such, but also of various kinds of addictions; on the social level, we can think of systems of exploitation and oppression, economic and political. Jesus is the “Stronger one” (1:7), who has come to “bind” Satan (3:27) and break his grip upon human life in all these ways.
To benefit from this liberation what is required on the human side is “repentance” and faith. Repentance (Greek: metanoia [= change of heart]) is not simply repentance for sin but an openness to a whole new vision of God and God”s action in the world, something that will radically shake prevailing expectations. Faith is then the conviction that, in the teaching and activity of Jesus, the liberating power of the Kingdom is truly present and effective. Faith is the essential channel through which this power takes hold of human lives. Its absence can cause “blockage” (as will be the case when Jesus visits his hometown, Nazareth [Mark 6:1-6]). Hence the summons to “believe the good news” (v 15).
Following the summary of Jesus” inaugural preaching, the gospel goes on to describe his calling of disciples to assist him in his mission. The double call involving two sets of brothers enables us to discern a common pattern: Jesus “sees” and “calls”, they “leave” and “follow”. In fishers of fish, Jesus sees a capacity for a new kind of “fishing”. He calls them to cease being fishers of fish and become, through following him, fishers of people—sharers, in other words, in his mission of reclaiming human lives for the life-giving rule of God.
As is always the case when people are called by God in the Scriptures before they can follow the call they must leave significant aspects of their former life behind. Here the disciples immediately leave their old livelihood (nets, boats, hired men) and their family (father). They will find a new “boat”—the Church—and new “family”—the band of disciples gathered around Jesus, who he will induct into the intimacy of his familial relationship with God. Hearing the call of Jesus today may not, as in the case of those four disciples, involve leaving one’s present occupation. But it may so deepen the way one lives that occupation as to transform it into a true catching of “fish” for the Kingdom.
The Gospel is aptly foreshadowed in the First Reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) by the call of the prophet Jonah and his summons to the people of Nineveh to repent in view of a threatened punishment by God—a punishment which their repentance averts.
The Second Reading (1 Cor 7:29-31) stands rather apart from all this. Congregations today will be shocked to hear Paul counsel, “Those who have wives should live as though they had none”! His advice reflects the intense expectation of the end of the world in the early Church. A glance at the wider context shows that he is not counselling the abandonment of marriage or engagement with the business of the world but a refusal to be absorbed in such realities since the only lasting reality is that of the coming Reign of God.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media