By Brother Matthew Schaefer, C.PP.S.
In my travels on the interstate system, I frequently encounter what I call Billboards of Doom. Two that I pass regularly give a rather unambiguous message: the first one, REPENT! and the second one, HELL IS REAL!
I assume that similar billboards exist all across the nation. These messages do not seem encouraging or positive. They appear to be based in fear and are not reflective of a merciful, loving God.
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew offers a different view of repentance. In telling of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, Matthew invokes the message of Isaiah, who wrote of the impending defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel by its enemies. Isaiah offers hope to the southern kingdom of Judah, a message of light conquering darkness and death.
Matthew follows “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,” with Jesus saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew’s call to repentance is not simply about avoiding death and punishment. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” does refer to the final judgement, but it is also about salvation and God’s providential care and transformation of the world. And these elements of the kingdom are filled with hope and mercy.
Immediately after this call to repentance, Matthew has Jesus perform his first public act. He calls Peter, Andrew, James and John. He encounters them as they are fishing and beckons them to come with him. They leave everything and follow him. Matthew offers no verbal responses from the new disciples, just their immediate obedience.
Leaving everything behind is significant. Following Jesus isn’t only about adherence to rules and doing certain actions, it begins with a disposition, making Jesus the priority in our lives. By putting the call of the first apostles after the message to repent, Matthew highlights another element of repentance—the need for conversion. A disposition toward and a desire for constant, lifelong conversion is an essential element of Christian life.
Unlike the dark messages of the Billboards of Doom, Matthew and Jesus and Isaiah offer a hopeful vision of the fruits of repentance: from Isaiah, victory and abundance; from Matthew, commitment and purpose; and from Jesus, salvation and eternal life.
May all of us follow the great light of Jesus and be transformed into true disciples.
Brother Matthew Schaefer, C.PP.S., is in ministry at the Downtown Dayton Parishes, which include Emmanuel, Holy Trinity and St. Joseph.