When Jesus proclaims in our gospel today that, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news”, these are not only the very first words spoken by him in the gospel of Mark, but also the very first declaration that a new era for human history had opened up.
The Jews at the time knew that a new phase in their history was about to begin. They knew the Scriptures – they had been waiting for centuries for God’s definitive breaking into history and his sending of the Messiah to be their Saviour. John the Baptist had been preparing them for that moment and telling them that it was now on the horizon. What is new and exciting for them was Jesus’ declaration that this moment had now arrived. Now was the time for their salvation; now were all their hopes for God to establish his rule and reign over the hearts of all mankind to be fulfilled. Jesus at this moment was declaring himself to be the long-awaited Messiah, and such is the authority of his person and so convincing his proclamation that the kingdom of God had now arrived, that his first four disciples leave their family and their work at once in response to his call to follow him .
Where Israel got it wrong was in believing that Jesus was their Messiah only, and that God’s kingdom necessarily involved establishing Israel to be top nation. Their constant tendency to xenophobia and a narrowmindedness with regards to who was worthy to be saved meant that they were reluctant to believe that anyone else could be members of God’s kingdom. And yet their very own Scriptures had continually warned them not to take their place in the kingdom of heaven for granted. The classic prophets of old – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos and so on – had continually urged them to get right with God and not presume on the idea that ,just because they were God’s Chosen Race, they could do whatever they wanted, and still be forgiven.
The Day of the Lord spoken of by these prophets was seen by the majority of Israel as the time when God would intervene in human history to deliver Israel from its enemies and introduce an era of prosperity and blessing for them, but of destruction for the pagans . This tendency towards narrowmindedness on the part of the Jews was to be their undoing, as it became clearer that Jesus was not at all buying into their xenophobia, but showing that God’s favor extended beyond Israel to embrace the whole world. Jesus, as John the Baptist declared when he saw him, was to be that Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the whole world. When Jesus went on to declare that his Jewish hearers should not take their salvation for granted, and were also called to repent of their sins, lest they find themselves excluded from the kingdom, this was just too much for them, and they ended rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. The irony of it all – that the very ones prepared for centuries to receive the Messiah should end up rejecting him, and that the pagans, believed by the majority of Jews to be outside salvation should find themselves getting into heaven ahead of the Jews – should not be lost on us.
Israel’s story is ours, brothers and sisters, is the story of each one of us. How many times have I come across well-meaning Catholics who sincerely believed that only Catholics will be saved. A Fr. Feeney back in 1933 was publicly rebuked by the Vatican for preaching that only Catholics would be saved. And yet I was astonished to hear that self-same heresy on the lips of a member of the very first parish I ministered at. And he was not to be the last person I would hear make the same mistaken statement. As I have moved back and forward among Catholic and Protestant circles I have met people who sincerely held the belief that all Catholics are going to hell, and those who believed that Protestants would only be saved if they became Catholic. Neither position is found in Scripture or in the Creeds.
Let us remind ourselves of what the Catholic Church itself declared in its dogmatic constitution on the Church at the Second Vatican Council:
“Eternal salvation is open to those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church but seek God with a sincere heart, and under the inspiration of grace try in their lives to do his will, made known to them by the dictates of their conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the aids necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet reached an explicit belief in God, but strive to lead a good life, under the influence of God’s grace.”Second Vatican Council
One might be tempted to ask, then, why bother becoming a Catholic, and why are we always being called to evangelize others to faith in Christ?
Well, the document I have been quoting from addresses that as well, when it goes on to say:
“Whatever goodness and truth is found among them is seen by the Church as a preparation for the gospel, and as given by him who shines on all people so that they may at last have eternal life.”Second Vatican Council
Do you prefer to be in a room flooded by light, or always with the light dimmed? The Catholic Church represents the fullness of light that Christ brought into the world. That doesn’t mean that God cannot shine his light elsewhere, among people of other faiths or none.
In the end, God’s message of salvation, Jesus’ declaration in the gospel that the kingdom of God has come near, is extended not to churches or faiths but to all individuals. As St Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:4: “God wants all people to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth,” and that Truth, of course, is Jesus, “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)
To be a member of a particular Church or to hold to a particular faith, is not sufficient for salvation. One can be baptized a Catholic, and still not be saved, if one never hears the call of Jonah in our first reading, or of Jesus in the gospel, as a call to me, here, now, to take seriously the words of Jesus in another part of the gospel: “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
The words of Jesus in our gospel today: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” can be wonderful, exciting, words, full of hope and consolation for you and me, but only if we are prepared to act on the following words of Jesus also: “repent and believe in the good news.”
Let us not forget the words of this poem from an anonymous author:
I dreamt death came the other night
And Heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright
Ushered me inside.
And there! To my astonishment
Stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As “quite unfit”, “of little worth”
And “spiritually disabled”.
Indignant words rose to my lips
But never were set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise
Not one expected me !