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The passage opens with a brief introduction wherein Jesus goes in the villages of the Galilean mountains and preaches the gospel. “The time is fulfilled—he said—and the kingdom of God has come; Repent and believe the gospel” (vv. 14-15).
This is the first sentence he says and it is the synthesis of all his message.
He speaks of the kingdom of God. His listeners, educated by the prophets, know what he actually refers to. For five hundred years, Israel has had the experience of the monarchy. The Davidic dynasty has included also able sovereigns. However, the analysis that the Bible makes of this historical period is entirely negative. Except for a few noble exceptions, all the kings have fallen away from the Lord. They did not listen to the prophets and led the people to ruin. In 587 B.C. the last king was deported to Babylon with his people.
Was it the end of everything? Someone dreamt of the restoration of the Davidic dynasty; some others put their hopes in a future messiah. All came to the conclusion however that only the Lord could revive the fortunes of Israel, personally picking up the leadership of his people, proclaiming himself king in place of the previous unworthy rulers.
It was the beginning of the waiting for the kingdom of God.
In the early books of the Bible there already is a promise: “The Lord is our king” (Jdg 8:23), “The Lord will reign for ever” (Ex 15:18). Promise is a commitment, reiterated by God through the prophets: “I rule you with an iron hand” (Ez 20:33); “The kingdom will be of the Lord” (Abd 21).
By remembering this expectation, cultivated over the centuries by the Israelites, we can understand the explosive charge of the words of Jesus. The time of waiting—he says—is over; it is time of consolation and peace, the kingdom of God is here; the Lord’s promises are fulfilled.
The content of his message is gospel—the good news.
By this we mean a book, but in Jesus’ time gospel meant only good news. All happy good news were called gospels: a military success, healing from an illness, the end of a war, the birth of an emperor, his ascension to the throne and his visit to a city.
At the beginning of his book, Mark presents Jesus as the herald, in charge of proclaiming such extraordinary news to people, so amazing as to arouse great joy in the listeners.
There are two conditions to experience it: one must repent and believe.
To repent does not mean the firm determination to avoid sin or the other, but it is the decision to radically change the way one sees God, man, the world, history.
We always focused too much on the moral conversion. Often little has been understood that the first change to do is about the image of God we made and which we do not like to give up because it is modelled on our thoughts, judgments and sentiments. We are firmly anchored on the Baptist’s words referred to us by Matthew: “Brood of vipers! Let it be seen that you are serious in your conversion”
(Mt 3:7) or those that Luke attributes to the precursor: “The axe is already laid to the roots of the tree” (Lk 3:9). Mark leaves more space to the intuition of the good news: “The kingdom of God has come.” It is not the perception of the imminence of a terrible punishment, but a novelty that cheers. There is hope for all, even for the most hardened sinner, even for one who feels like a scum, because God does not considered him a waste but a son.
God already revealed himself thus, not only in the Holy Scriptures, but through creation. For this, when man imagines God, any god, he has to imagine him necessarily good. To convert, then, is to go back to see God so infinitely good, because this is already part of our DNA.
Christ has revolutionized the world. He puts love and compassion as its foundation, correcting first the idea of God that is deformed within us.
To convert is also to change the way of looking at man and creation. It is to start seeing everything from the perspective of God, from God’s part, of the loving, patient, slow to anger, full of kindness and interest for his creatures, of the God who knows how to distinguish what appears and what is, the accidental course from the basic choice, the ephemeral from what is lasting.
To assimilate this image of God it is necessary to live in a permanent state of conversion. One will never reach the perfection of the Father who is in heaven, but we must continually work towards it. Who considers himself already converted stands outside the kingdom of God. To feel calm, yes, but never satisfied.
Then one must also believe, that is not equivalent to accepting a package of truth. It
means to follow Christ, with the certainty of arriving, among the numerous contrasts and renouncements, to the fullness of life. To believe is to trust him, his word and his promise: “See I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). To believe is to accept his answers to our questions with unconditional confidence.
The second part of the passage (vv. 16-20) introduces the call of the first four disciples destined to become, after the resurrection of Jesus, the heralds of the gospel.
The episode is divided into two parallel moments corresponding to the calls of the two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew (vv. 16-17), James and John (vv. 19-20).
The version of the events referred to us by Mark is different. From the historical point of view, it is difficult to reconcile it with that of John (Jn 1:35-51).
The goal of Mark is not to offer a detailed account of what happened. He does not intend to meet even our legitimate curiosity. He does not tell us, for example, if the four fishermen had already met Jesus, if they had seen some of his miracles. It does not explain how they could give up everything without raising any objection, without questions. He wants to give a lesson of catechesis to anyone who one day feels called by Jesus. The passage does not refer to the vocation of priests and nuns. It speaks about the call of every person to be a disciple. It is about the vocation to baptism.
The scene goes fast, so much so that it is almost hard to follow the frames. Jesus, the protagonist, is moving quickly, in a hurry not only in walking, but in speaking, in inviting to follow him. Its looks like a race against time. In fact it is the anxiety to announce that “the time has come.” There is no choice but the need to hurry to become part of the reign of God.
It was noted that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus never stops: passing along the Sea of Galilee (v. 16), he calls and does not turn back to see if the disciples have accepted his invitation. He goes straight over (v. 19), calls the other two and then continues on his way without stopping for a moment (v. 21). Who wants to follow him cannot delude oneself: the road ahead is not easy. The Master leaves no rest even for a moment. He does not grant months off, days or hours of vacation. He demands that the disciple keeps pace, always.
Then other characters appear: Simon and Andrew, James and John. They are not praying or performing some especially important action. They are simply practicing their profession.
Other vocations in the Bible took place in similar circumstances. The prophet Elisha received the invitation to follow Elijah while he was in the field plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him (1 K 19:19-21). Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law (Ex 3:1), Gideon was threshing wheat (Jdg 6:11), Matthew was busy collecting taxes (Mk 2:13-14).
God does not turn to the idlers, people without ideals, without concrete benchmarks, but to those who are fully inserted in their social, economic, family context. The adherence to Christ in faith is never a stopgap, a consolation for those who failed in other goals, but a proposal made to committed people and realized in life.
As all the vocations of which the Bible speaks, that of following Jesus is also completely free. The disciple knows and follows the Master because he is called, because it was revealed to him and offered as a gift. Who is aware of this is not proud nor despise those who have not joined Christ. He thanks the Lord for what he has received and commits so that he can create, also in others, the favorable conditions to receive the same gift.
From the beginning, Jesus presents himself as a master different from those of his time. They remained in their school waiting for the disciples to meet them to learn the lesson and then go back to their homes. The teachers were not choosing the disciples but the disciples were choosing the teacher.
Jesus does not want disciples who seek him to learn a lesson, but people who walk with him, who share his life’s choices.
The first four disciples respond immediately to the call. They trust in Jesus and follow him, even if the destination is still unknown, and the fate to which they are called will be clear only later.
The Ninevites were granted forty days of time to accept or reject the invitation to conversion. Elisha was allowed to “say goodbye to his father and mother” before following Elijah (1K 19:20). To his own Jesus does not grant any postponement. To one he will say: “Let the dead bury their dead; as for you, leave them and proclaim the kingdom of God. Whoever has put his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:59-62).
The answer to his call must be given immediately. The separation must be total and immediate; nothing can prevent to follow him. Even the most sacred affections, such as those that bind one to the parents and the family, attachment to one’s profession, the need to have an economic and social security, the desire not to lose friends, everything must be sacrificed if it is in conflict with the new life to which Jesus calls.