Sunday, February 18, 2018

Repent of Your Agenda

"Repent and believe in the gospel" is a line forever connected with the ministry of Jesus and with the season of Lent. But what does it mean? What did it mean to Jesus' hearers? Was it "do penance" as St. Jerome translated it? Or was Martin Luther right that it was more of an interior awareness of moral failings and of conversion to good? Or did it mean something else?   

This long homily discusses the meaning of metanoia, the agendas of Jesus' hearers then and now, the gulf we often let separate the ministry of Jesus from his death and resurrection, the debates in Catholic and Protestant circles because of that, and how Jesus lived out—literally enacted—the things he exhorted in his ministry as he suffered his passion.   

Like I said, it's long (20 min). But every time I tried to cut a piece and save it for another homily, the other pieces wouldn't fit together right. Also, this recording has a lot of oral mistakes; it was my fourth time through it and my third Mass in a row. I think my brain was tired and my mouth was dried out. See the text to alleviate confusions.

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B

Repent of Your Agenda

In 66 AD, about 35 years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, there was a young Jewish aristocrat named Josephus who was leading an army into Galilee.

Josephus had been sent north to try to talk down some of the rebellious hotheads who were rushing toward open war with Rome.

Josephus paints a marvelous scene straight out of a Clint Eastwood western as he awaits the rebel leader in an emptied marketplace, while both he and rebel leader want the other guy to come and negotiate without their posses behind him.

Eventually he and the rebel leader meet face to face in this market like it’s the OK corral.

I’m telling you a little about Josephus today—and he’s very important for this homily—because:

1) He gives us the greatest amount of information about the four kinds of people in Judea in Jesus’ time.

2) His words to this rebel leader have fascinating implications for how we read today’s gospel.

This homily has a lot in it, so I’m going to divide it into three acts so as to help keep things organized, but also so we can see what things stay the same even as times change.

The three acts will be:
the ancient past, (the biggest)
the recent past,
and the current day

Act One:
Ancient past

The gospel of Mark today says:

“Repent and believe in the gospel”

A Powerful line

An oft-repeated line

A line that priests could chose to use on Ash Wednesday when applying ashes:

“Repent and believe in the gospel.”

But what’s that mean, really?

To try to understand what Jesus might have meant in Palestine in the first century AD, we need to know more about whom he was talking to, and what the words meant in their ears.

Here is where Josephus comes in.

Josephus, in his other books, tells the big story of the Jewish people and of their climatic war with Rome that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered them around the world.

He tells us “who is who” in 1st c. Palestine and what they believe.

And his descriptions line up with what we can slightly glimpse in the gospels, especially for the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Before I go further, let me clarify that these four groups, which ultimately contain four different worldviews, are all Jewish.

They were faithful, practicing Jews, Jews who read their Torah and their prophets and psalms, and who all thought that those scriptures were telling them how they should be living in a Judea that is run by pagan overlords.

For us, we take separation of church and state as a given, and a generally good thing.

For them, the idea of separating religion and politics was not merely dangerous, it was actually impossible, because God had told them where they were to be in the world and what they needed to do.

First the Sadducees.

These were the caste of priests and Levites, centered around the temple and Jerusalem.

They held the power of worship and sacrifice, but they, as the power in the capital, had (along with Herod) become largely cooperators and partners with the Romans.

They were seen by the other three groups as compromisers.

The Romans kept them in power and the Sadducees made good money off it, and in turn they would defend the Romans against the hotheads and religious fanatics.

This is why Caiaphas would prefer one possible Messiah die on a cross rather than risk a riot that could lead Rome to punish all of Jerusalem.

Sadducees = compromise and submit to worldly power: “At least we get to keep the temple and some freedom.”


Zealots were not just ready for a holy war, they wanted it as soon as possible.

Had not the prophets promised that God would be with his people? That he would strike down the pagans like he did through David as of old?

Whether they moved up to the mountains or prepared themselves secretly in the towns, they said their prayers, sharpened their swords, and made ready to fight God’s war against the hordes of darkness and the pagan monsters of Daniel chapter 7.

Zealots = direct military confrontation

Third, Essenes

Don’t get much play in the New Testament, but that goes with their game plan.

Essenes were religious, and even civil, separatists.

They saw the temple system as corrupt, but really they saw the whole world as corrupt, so the fled to a village of caves down by the Dead Sea.

They were puritans who separated from all other groups and waited for the end of the world—which they though was coming very soon—in self imposed exile.

They were basically monastic, some even practiced celibacy, and they wrote and hid the texts we call the Dead Sea scrolls

So we have establishment-compromisers, zealot-crusaders, and otherworldly-escapists.

The fourth group was the Pharisees, who were actually the least extreme group, who mostly were seen as the synagogue keepers and the religion teachers, and faithful rank and file of observant Jews.

But they did think that Sabbath, Temple, and Torah were the pillars of a good Jewish life, and that they were the things that kept Jews separate from godless pagans. So when Jesus didn’t bow to those things—Sabbath, temple, and Torah—he could seem like a compromiser.

And politically, while maybe more patient and busy with education, their worldview of reestablishing the kingdom of Israel soon made them share kingdom-dreams with the zealots and their holy war ideas.

One thing to notice: all have a strong “us vs. them” sense.

So those are the four groups to whom Jesus shows up and announces the kingdom.

“Repent and believe in the gospel”

This might seem kind of pointless.

Jesus is telling everyone to repent right?

What difference does it make?

We’re all sinners.

Yeah, repent. Believe.

All four groups just need to repent of their personal sins.

But here is where we need Josephus again.

The meaning of the word “repent”—which is our translation of the Greek metanoia—is rather uncertain and highly debated.

St Jerome translated it into Latin as “do penance”—a very ancient catholic idea.

Later, Martin Luther would point out that “do penance” doesn’t cover the interior implications of metanoia, and translated it to mean “a change deep in the human heart”.

Later some Protestant writers will notice that “admit you’re a sinner” goes nicely with the “and believe in the gospel” part and that it seems like an early form of an evangelical Protestant confess-and-believe formula.

Those two oversimplifications for metanoia—“do something outwardly” and “think something inwardly” would survive for a long time and would pop up again in Act Two. 

But neither of those two meanings do justice to what metanoia meant according to other sources we have from the time which have Jewish authors, writing in Greek, about Jewish things.

And they don’t explain why Jesus’ message would seem so revolutionary or make him seem like such a danger to those other four groups: compromise Sadducees, escapist Essenes, war-hungry Zealots, and their allies the Pharisees.

Metanoia was used at the time to mean “reconsider”, to rethink something.

It’s used to denote “regret”, but not exclusively of regretting bad actions.

In referring to Pharaoh and Herod, authors used it to mean they had done a good thing originally and then had a metanoia—a regret—and now want to do evil, like chase after the Israelites as they had been allowed to leave Egypt.

So it can’t just mean a moral change for the good, like Luther presented it.

In this context, it meant:

Change your mind based on new info.

Give up your old agenda because you now know better.

Believe based on better evidence. 

Like a Garmin GPS: Recalculate! Recalculate!

And that is exactly how Josephus will use it.

He had been sent to this dusty marketplace to persuade the revolutionaries to stop their headlong rush to fight the Romans and to instead trust him and the other aristocrats in Jerusalem to work out a peace.

What’s crazy is that, Josephus, within 20 years of Mark’s gospel being written will use the exact same words Jesus uses in today’s gospel.

He tell the brigand leader: “Repent and believe in me”

(Philologist’s Note: Mark quotes Jesus commanding people metanoeite kai pisteute en tō euaggeliō, and Josephus convinces the rebels to (in the infinitive) metanoēsein kai pistos emoi genesesthai.)

It’s one thing if Jesus, whom God the Father called his beloved at the Jordan, says “Repent and believe what I’m announcing”…

But here’s Joe Bob Flavius Josephus saying:

“repent and believe in ME”

“rethink your plans and trust in ME”

So repent/metanoia isn’t just “admit you’re a sinner” or have a moral change”, as many treat it.

And “believe” is more than just “follow a God”

Jesus in today’s gospel was saying to all the groups of Israel: “Give up your own old agendas and accept this new proclamation”

He calls them out:

Essenes, you can’t turn your backs: we are the imaging-bearing stewards of Genesis 1&2, called to be witnesses, the light to the world, a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden

Sadducees, you cannot walk hand-in-hand with pagan oppressors. You can’t turn a blind eye to injustice. Your avarice and pride and surrender to pagansis what the bad kings of Israel did.

Zealots, and your friends the Pharisees, you are cruising toward destruction. Not only on a natural level of Roman retribution—remember his warnings about fall of Jerusalem “Not a stone will remain upon a stone… since you did not know what makes for peace”—but also a correction to them on divine level: God doesn’t want this. No. Turn the other cheek, go the second mile, surrender your tunic, you’re your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, humble yourselves, forgive the tax collector, the adulterer, the prodigal son.

Jesus is saying, I have a new plan, and you need to repent: i.e. reconsider, change your agenda, recalculate based on new information.


We can almost unintentionally separate Jesus proclaiming these things in the first three quarters of the gospels from what he did and what he underwent when he was arrested, beaten, humiliated, tortured, and killed.

Almost all Christians have this tendency to separate his public teaching from his passion and death.

We think “Oh they just hate Jesus and so they are going to kill him.”

Or: Jesus has to die on a cross and that will magically save us, but unconnected to anything else.

But no. Jesus is living out everything he has been telling people for the last three years.

The way of life he preached in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables, he is going now to live out.

If you seize him in the night, he won’t resist.

When the guards punch him he turns the other cheek.

He willing walks the first and the second mile to Calvary when they command him.

He lets them strip him of the cloak and tunic.

He forgives his enemies and prays for those who persecute him.

He will drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism that he asked James and John if they could endure.

He becomes like the mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to shield them from the barnyard fire.

Jesus does not separate his passion, death, and resurrection from his proclamation of the gospel and the kingdom—he sees it as living out what he’s been trying to convince them to do all along.

“I literally want you to give up your kingdom-dreams, all four of them, and realize that I am giving you the right way to bring about the kingdom. I’m going to tell you it, and then I’m going to live it.”

That’s the metanoia he preached, and that’s the proof that what he preached and how he died are of a whole.

Act Two: the more recent past

Two splits in Christian thinking advance from this.

First, what I just mentioned: separation of the public ministry and teaching from his passion, death, and resurrection.

If you think about it, our creeds kind of added to this.

The job of the creeds was to cover what was debated.

So, explaining that Jesus is consubstantial to the Father or that he really died and rose were the big deals.

And so you write something concise but dense with meaning, like a creed.

It’s ok that they don’t mention the public message if they are just used for clarifying dogma.

But once the creeds became a main catechetical tool—once they became the way to teach converts and children—you can see how a gap could emerge between “what really matters: his death and resurrection” and “eh, the stuff he said before that”

A split develops between the paschal mystery and the public ministry, between salvation theology and how to live in the world

The second was kind of left behind.

Look at the mysteries of the rosary. For 800 years we followed the spare outline of the creeds: we have the virgin birth and then we skip thirty years to his death and his resurrection. It wasn’t until 2002 that John Paul II first said, “You know, we could have some mysteries for the three years of his ministry.” And only then did we have the Luminous Mysteries.

So you’ve got that going on after Jesus’ own day as the Church tries to sort out its dogmas in the early Christian centuries.

This will last for a thousand years and be handed on from Catholics to Protestants.

I mentioned earlier that Luther would see metanoia as a change of heart, recognizing oneself as a sinner and repenting inwardly, and people after him would say this is all you need: just confess and believe. What matters is getting saved.

So that was the second split.

For a while, there was an attempt at integration between the “the message of the gospels—how do I live” and “the gospel—ideas from St. Paul on how do I get saved?” but those split apart in Protestantism over time.

You had one group saying: we have to do things, we have to act to make the world a better place, Christ called us to love our brothers and work for the kingdom, a social gospel.

But there was pushback from another group saying “All that matters is getting saved, getting to heaven, we need to focus on evangelizing and getting people to accept and believe in Jesus,”

Kind of like the Essenes: “This world is passing away. Forget about it and focus on heaven.”

So you have a split: Social Do-gooders and Otherworldly just-believers — a split between mainstreamers like Methodists on one hand and the fundamentalists and evangelicals on the other.

This has been going on for the last 200-300 years.

Catholics were doing their own thing then, but I think in the last 50 years Catholics have had their own version.

First: “If we’re going to be Christians, we need to do, do, do.”

But then the pushback: “No leave the political world aside, leave the social world to others, just go be as holy as you can be, Convert others to the faith and get them holy too. Focus on religious practice and getting to heaven.”

We too face a split between theology and salvation on one hand and social critique and love your neighbor as yourself on the other.

Act 3

Where are we right now?

The challenge of the split remains:

Just focus on getting holy.

Just focus on doing things.

When we see this we should look back to the Jews in Jesus’ time, going in their different directions: avoid the world, compromise with world, fight the world.

Jesus: “That’s not the plan God has.”

Repent—leave behind your old agenda—and listen to this proclamation.

Calls us out because we’re still doing an “us vs. them”

And he would not like that we are separating out the ideas of “this is what the gospel tells us do and how to live” and “just believe and worship”.

Think about it. We get infected by the “us vs. them”.

And we get infected by ideas of our own agendas.

We slide into modes of fight, or escape, or compromise.

Social and economic questions begin to split even our religious world of formerly unified Catholics.

We split into:

Republican / Democrat
Catholic / Protestant
Catholic school / public school

Chasing after all our things, following our own agendas… and Jesus is like:

“Stop it. Lay down your agendas. Lay down those divisions.

Remember what I told you to do: to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to forgive willingly, to bear wrongs patiently”

That’s what he’s asking us to do, and that means letting go of our own pride.

That means letting go our factions and divides and the “us vs. them” that we naturally tend to.

I had a lot of time to think about this a couple weeks ago when I was driving home for vacation. This homily is probably so long because I had nine hours to ponder how much we do this and how we imitate the divisions of first century Judaism.

The line that kept coming back to mind as I thought on this was from the movie Braveheart. The Scots have beaten the English in their first battle but they keep fighting among themselves. And William Wallace, the hero of the story, says to them:

You're so concerned with squabbling for the scraps from Longshank's table that you've missed your God given right to something better.

It’s the reasonable critique of the Jewish people at Jesus’ time—they had given up on their call to something better and were squabbling over what to do about the Romans.

It critiques the split within Protestantism : of going all in for the world or going all in against the world.

And we’ve fallen into it too.

We fight over the dumb little things.

Instead of chasing something bigger.

We need to realize that if we really lived the gospel we wouldn’t need any of that.

Usually our debates are because we don’t want to spend money, so we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t.

Or we don’t want to devote time to things other than ourselves and our own interests, so we pull away.

Or we hold a grudge over something that happened 20 or 30 years ago.

It’s because we are proud and avaricious and selfish that we have to be in an “us vs. them” mindset.

But if we heard the gospel, if we lived the Sermon on the Mount, we wouldn’t have to do that.

We could actually work together.

We could be built up into the body of Christ.

We could be healing those divisions.

We, right here in Wahoo Nebraska, could be the light to world —but we would have to choose it.

But we would have to let go of our squabbles.

That’s why we have to hear the message anew.

It’s not just for Jews 2,000 years ago.

We need to recalculate.

We need to reconsider.

We need to change and let go of our agendas,

and take on the gospel instead,

Because that is what Jesus is actually calling us to do when he says “repent and believe in the gospel.”

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