I was reading about the film actor Mark Wahlberg the other day. He was brought up tough in Boston and ended up on drugs and in prison. Then, with the help of a priest, he turned to God for help and was able to change his life. What was amazing and pleasing to me was to read that he goes to church to Mass or to pray every day. Here is someone rich, good-looking and successful who knows his need for God. Here is someone who has really responded to the words of Jesus in the Gospel today (Mark 1:14-20) “Repent and believe the Good news.”
Have you ever though how difficult it is for people like you and me to repent like this? Our problem is that most of us have never done anything really bad. Our lives have been fairly good. There has been no opportunity to make the kind of dramatic turn-around that Mark Wahlberg can look back to. When asked what he does when he goes to Mass, he says that he spends most of the time giving thanks, for his wife, his children, his friends, his life etc, and we can see why. From the toughest streets of Boston to the dizzy heights of Beverley Hills!
This is why St Paul uses such extravagant language in our 2nd Reading. (1 Cor 7:29-31) “Those who have wives should live as though they they had none… those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about” This is surely what Mark Wahlberg is trying to do. It isn’t that he is giving up his wife, or not enjoying his good fortune. Far from it! He clearly takes his role as a husband and father very seriously and remembers regularly how fortunate he is. And that is exactly what we should be doing as well – every day.
That is why giving thanks is at the heart of what it means to repent, because repentance (metanoia in Greek) means changing our mind, literall, every day making our mind dwell on how blessed we are, how many good things we have, instead of dwelling on the things that make us grumble, or the things that we would like to have, if only we had more money or a better job. Indeed, if you look at the disciples in the Gospel, they actually left their income as fisherman behind when they responded to the call of Jesus “At once they left their nets and followed him.” And again this doesn’t mean that we have to literally give up what we are doing, but it does mean looking at our work and our whole life in a different way.
I hope you notice that repentance does not mean being good. Most of you will have heard me quote one of my favourite phrases from Jesus before, but I make no apology for banging on about it again. “No-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18 Luke 18:19) It is the kind of phrase we good people need attached to our foreheads, that we need to repeat every day, whenever, which is often, we begin to get complacent about life, and think we are doing quite well thank you. “No-one is good but God alone”
I think, as part of this repentance business, we should also pay attention to the last point Paul makes in the 2nd reading, where he tells us not to become “engrossed” in the world. By this, as with his talk of enjoying life, he doesn’t mean that we should somehow literally renounce the world. That may be a call for some of us, to follow the example of the great St Antony of Egypt who we celebrated this week, and literally choose to become a monk or a nun, and radically change our life. But for all of us, it must means a daily examination of how much we are letting the world, or rather worldliness, dominate our life. I’ve warned you before to fight in your mind the advertisers who play upon our feeling that somehow, if we had this perfume, or that piece of furniture, or this latest mobile phone cum computer, or if we won ten million pounds, then we would be happy for ever. We know this is nonsense in the practical part of our minds, but deep in our sub-conscious, in our imagination, we fantasise about all this, and let it influence us, don’t we?
So repentance must mean a daily challenge to these inner desires that the advertisers are always using to tempt us. Giving thanks for what we have, instead of thinking about the things we would like to have. Living in the world, enjoying it, without getting engrossed in it. This is why we need to pray daily as Mark Wahlberg does, not necessarily in church, although that can help us, but daily. to turn our mind to God in thanksgiving, and so to live in his glory rather than in our own futile dreams.