Among the first words quoted of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are “repent, and believe in the good news.” Come Ash Wednesday, we might hear this appeal recited to us when soot is smudged on our heads. But what comes to mind when we are told to repent? Since Lent is a time of year when many of us try to shed our personal vices, we might think about an earnest effort to change our ways. Maybe our unshakable notions of “Catholic guilt” lead us to associate repentance with feelings of regret for past sins. However, New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, posits a slightly different nuance to the phrase, “repent and believe,” as it was understood in Jesus’ day. He compares it to other similar expressions used around the same time and place and suggests that Jesus was telling his followers to give up their agendas and trust in his way of bringing about the kingdom. Give up our agendas and trust in Jesus? It seems obvious, but it might be more challenging than we initially think.
We like to believe that our way of being Christian, being church, or being a just person is the way, but if we are not constantly looking to the Gospel to be challenged by the way that Jesus sets before us, we can be deluding ourselves. In the Old Testament we have a fascinating case study of one such person who insisted upon his own agenda over and above what God desired.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the words closely related to repentance is shuv, which really means “to turn back.” In the book of Jonah, however, the wayward prophet does just the opposite. He keeps running away from God, even when those around him turn toward the Lord. The pagan seafarers eventually offer up sacrifices to Jonah’s God. The Ninevites believe in God and turn from their evil way. Even God turns away from the punishment that was intended for the wicked city. But Jonah does not turn. Instead, he sulks because, as he says to God, “That is why I fled… for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.” Jonah was not on board with the benevolence of God. His agenda was to see the Ninevites punished, but knowing that God abounds in steadfast love, he sought his own path so that Nineveh wouldn’t escape the comeuppance he thought they deserved.
Instead of going our own way, like Jonah, the call we hear from the prophet Joel on Ash Wednesday is to return (shuv): “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” We turn our hearts back to God when we follow in the path that Jesus walked ahead of us. His way of ushering in the kingdom was not with condemnation, violence, or exclusion but through forgiveness, healing, and by laying down his life. He invites us to do the same. This might mean doing more than giving up our personal sins. It’s a challenge to shift our way of thinking – from our way to God’s way. At its core, the word “repent” in Greek (metanoeō) refers to a change of mind. What mentality do we need to turn from, or better yet, turn toward? Do we insist on our own vision of justice, like Jonah, or our own sense of righteousness or power? If so, here is an opportunity to let go of our agendas and trust instead in the good news of God’s mercy.