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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Repent and Believe
Mark’s gospel also calls its audience to “repent and believe the good news.” It almost sounds tone-deaf in the face of Rome. Yet this language of repentance and belief was not purely religious. For Mark’s audience, the call to “repent and believe” a “gospel” different than Rome’s would have been deeply political.
The Greek word for repent is metanoeo. It means to rethink something, to think differently about things, or to reconsider. Mark’s Jesus proclaims a gospel that invited a radical rethinking of how to order society. Jesus was calling his followers to reassess their values and placing the vulnerable at the center of those values, not just the wealthy and elite. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order and to those oppressing them.
Today, too, we can predict that exploitative systems and economic structures must change or humanity will cease to exist. Mark’s audience had seen exploitation’s destructive end. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed had escalated till Jerusalem stood smoldering.
The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. This phrase is used in other contexts than in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus’ autobiography, for example, records an event that took place when he tried to end various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engaged with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and told him that he would forgive “what he had done already if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was requiring this brigand to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations and trust Josephus for a better way. Josephus uses the same phrase Jesus does: “metanoesein kai pistos emoi (Thackery, The Life of Flavius Josephus, p. 10)
Whereas Josephus blamed brigands and Jewish rebels for the destruction Rome wreaked on Jerusalem, today we’d call that victim-blaming. Rome chose to economically exploit the people in Galilee and Judea through client kings and the temple-state’s high priests. And when the people finally had been bled dry and could not take any more, Rome chose to respond by leveling Jerusalem to the ground.
Mark’s gospel lifts this phrase, metanoesein kai pistos emoi, (repent and believe in what I’m telling you) to call its audience, not to the passive acceptance Josephus offered, but to reimagine what a just world could look like, even in the wake of such devastation and setback.
2020 has been devastating for so many. In 2021, our social orders will still prioritize and privilege some while marginalizing and subjugating others. In our world, White people are privileged over people of color; men are privileged over women; the rich are privileged over the poor; those defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who identify as LGBTQ, and the formally educated are privileged over those who are equally intelligent but have not had the same opportunities.
What is Mark’s Jesus saying to us today?
A different iteration of our present world is possible even now if we would collectively choose it, and it will take us choosing it together. Mark’s Jesus story subverts present structures and offers a way of imagining our world where people matter over power, privilege, property, and profit. Just as it did for Mark’s original audience, this reimagining of our present world involves a radically new way of thinking about redistributing resources with values of compassion, justice, equity, and concern for the safety, well-being, and thriving of those the present system leaves vulnerable to harm.
This vision is of a world of social structures rooted in love for all. As Dr. Emilie Townes states, and as we at RHM are fond of often quoting, “If we begin with the belief that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” In the words of Mark’s gospel, when we start with love, a just future “has come near” (Mark 1:15).