(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’ (Mark 1:15)
One of the most annoying things a satnav can say is, “Use the next roundabout to make a U-turn.” Unfortunately, it is also something that I hear often. And if you’re anything like me, you would find it rather frustrating precisely because there, in the middle of your plodding along and trying to find your way through the traffic, the satnav suddenly reminds you that something has gone wrong – heck, not something, but that you have gone down the wrong road – and that only possible way to reach your destination is to turn around immediately and go back to the appointed route.
Today’s gospel – and first reading for that matter – does precisely that, as we hear the Lord Jesus saying, ‘Repent, and believe the Good News.’ To repent literally means to turn around. To repent is to turn around and away from what we are doing, and to re-orient ourselves toward Jesus. Just as at Mass we all orient ourselves in one and the same direction towards the Lord present on the altar, so we are called to do in life, as Jesus invites us to make a U-turn from our self-centred, self-seeking (and sometimes self-destructing) ways, and start to follow after him instead. Simple enough to say, but what does repentance actually look like in practice? Perhaps unfortunately, repentance has been badly typecast, and I guess most of us would associate it with doing penance, with giving up things for Lent, with fasting and putting on sackcloth like the citizens of Nineveh, and even with a time of boring, joyless sobriety. But all these things are just tools to lead us to true repentance, which is simply a genuine movement of both heart and mind towards Christ… the start of a journey in his direction.
Mark’s gospel gives us a practical example of what repentance should look like by describing how the first disciples begin to follow Jesus. Last Sunday we read together a passage of John’s gospel where Jesus is manifested by John the Baptist as the Christ. In that version of the events, John and Andrew immediately start to follow Jesus after that testimony. But Mark presents us with the different version of the events, where it is Jesus who calls Peter and Andrew, and then James and John to follow. So which one was it? Which version of the events is more likely to be a true account of what happened when the first disciples encountered the Lord? I personally would suggest that John’s description of how him and Andrew begun their journey with Jesus is probably the more accurate, because John the Evangelist was actually one of the people involved.
However, there is no need to set one version against the other, because they both agree in putting the same two points across. First, Jesus is this hugely charismatic and compelling figure and whether his call to them was individual and explicit or not, the disciples are instinctively drawn to him, to attach themselves to him. Secondly, to follow Jesus means repenting; turning away and leaving one’s life behind in order to be with the Lord. And this aspect is more prominent is Mark’s version. See how Peter and Andrew are surprised by Jesus in the middle of their working day, and how James and John are called by the Lord in the ordinariness of their daily routine... When the Lord calls them, it’s not like they don’t have anything else to do. As fishermen they own their own businesses, so to speak; they have families to provide for and things to do. Yet, all of them turn away from what they were doing, because they can instinctively see that to follow Jesus is far more important than anything else. So without a word they make their first steps in a new direction, in a new life. And for them this is the beginning of true, life-long repentance.
It is never easy to realise when we are going wrong, to eat humble pie and to make a U-turn. But if we carry on and let ourselves be guided by social conventions, bad habits, unfulfilling occupations, or human values with very little meaning, our journey through life can easily become an aimless (if not disastrous) wandering along unsuitable roads. Yet, turning around is always possible and well worth the effort; to repent and accept the gospel is to make the first steps is a new direction toward something different, something better, and something altogether more satisfying.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).