Let the Scriptures Speak
The New Age: 2,000 Years Old
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
The language of this Sunday's Gospel could not be more fully packed. In two brief verses, Mark summarizes the ministry and preaching of Jesus, and in five he captures the call and response of the first disciples. The result is not a set of photos but a group of icons, indeed a triptych.
Panel one: After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” To people steeped in the language of the Hebrew prophets, “the good news [Godspel in Anglo-Saxon and on Broadway] of God” could mean only one thing: the announcement of the coming of God in saving power.
What did it signify to peasants of early first-century Galilee when they heard an itinerant craftsman proclaim that the kingdom of God was at hand? If you think of God as the king of the universe, is not the divine reign always “at hand”? How can what already is … come? Where was the “news” in such an utterance? What we post-modern Westerners need to know is that, in enlisting this kingdom-coming metaphor, Jesus was drawing upon language that was part of current-day apocalyptic writing. A Hebrew apocalypse, of which the book of Daniel is our handiest example, saw history divided into “the present age” and “the age to come.” Typically, “the present age” was seen as a moment when the king of kings, the Lord, allowed lesser, earthly kings (Nebuchadnezzar or Antiochus IV or Caesar or whoever) to have their temporary sway; but in “the age to come” the regency of King God would be displayed, the just would be rescued, the unjust duly punished.
In other words, the kingdom of God would be clearly manifested and recognized in this fresh intervention of the one who always reigns as king. For many contemporaries of Jesus, such a coming of the kingdom meant the defeat of the Roman occupation. As Jesus used the image, it meant something else even more exciting—a new healing and freeing access to God already to be tasted in his own ministry. The clue that Jesus is talking apocalyptic is the phrase “the time has been fulfilled”—“the time” being “the present age.” So the statement is not a declaration of a perennial truth but truly an announcement of news. It is news that is so good that it demands the response of metanoia, a change of heart, a whole new orientation. This announcement is a pointing to an unexpected prize, God's long-awaited intervention for the permanent rescue of all who will receive it.
And why does the evangelist introduce this summary of Jesus' Galilean preaching with the ominous reference to the arrest of John the Baptist? For two reasons, apparently: first, the removal of the Baptizer clears the deck and indeed calls for Jesus’ entry into Israel's life as John's prophetic successor. Second, and more significantly, the reference to John's arrest (which necessarily recalls his fate of capital punishment) prepares the reader for the fact that Jesus’ proclamation of the good news will result in his own death at the hands of Israelite and Roman officials. Indeed, the crucifixion will eventually be gathered into the heart of the post-Easter proclamation of the same good news.
What the proper response to this Godspel entails is acted out in the two panels of the triptych that follow. Simon and Andrew allow the Lord Jesus to interrupt their workday; they drop their nets and follow immediately. Then the Zebedee brothers' response to the same call is told in a way that highlights their letting go of everything—nets, boat, co-workers, even their father. The message? Responding to the good news of God's fresh intervention entails letting go of one's conventional tasks and attachments and following Jesus. The new task is described as “fishing people.” The prophet Habakkuk had once described humanity in need of redemption as “like the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler” (Hab 1:14). And Jeremiah had described the postexilic restoration of the people in similar terms: “Look! I will send many fishermen ... to catch them” (Jer 16:16). Joining Jesus' enterprise means participating in such a restoration. But first comes the letting go. Response to the Godspel of the new age means conversion, if not literally dropping a net, at least doing the old job in a new way.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University