A few years ago, I attended a symposium on the Second Vatican Council. The keynote address was delivered by someone with personal knowledge of the Council’s deliberations; I was looking forward to a fresh perspective on the Council’s sessions.
Instead of new insights or thoughtful reflections, the keynote address was a repetition of everything that everyone has said in every previous speech or journal article. The entirely predictable and conventional rehash of the meaning of Vatican II indicated to me that the keynote speaker hadn’t made any real effort to understand what happened during those four hope-filled years.
Of course, there is nothing inherently problematic about being conventional. The few times that I have travelled abroad, I’ve been mystified by the bizarre and challenging means that can be used to open and close a door. I’ve come across levers, buttons, dials, and devices for which I have no name; my preference is for a conventional doorknob.
Conventional religion, however, can be truly problematic. Religion has the capacity to be deeply comforting, but it also has the capacity to be deeply unfaithful. In today’s first reading, Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, cursed the prophet Amos saying, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.” (Amos 7:12-13)
Amaziah had a paid position in the court of the King of Israel; it was his responsibility to protect conventional religious practices and conventional politics. He felt threatened by the prophet Amos because Amos had come to Bethel to warn the King that Israel was facing a great danger of its own making. Amos warned the King against relying on political strategies for protection, and instead, to return to faithful worship of God. This call to repentance earned Amos rejection and banishment because the renewal of faith that he preached required a prior rejection of conventional religion.
Amos was not advocating change simply for the sake of change; he did not support the introduction of novel beliefs or devotions. Rather, he preached a return to the ancient faith of Israel, including the sole trust in God that represented traditional Hebrew religion. This idea should sound familiar to all of us; it is precisely the same message preached by Jesus. When he sent the Twelve on their first missionary experience, they were charged with the responsibility to widen Jesus’ ministry of calling people to repentance. (Mk. 6:12) Repentance, in this situation, required a rejection of the status quo.
Jesus’ preaching was problematic for some people for the same reason that the prophet Amos’ preaching was problematic for the Kingdom of Israel. Repentance can be tricky business. Repentance requires one to discern the current state of one’s faith. How can one know if one’s religious practice is authentically faithful or merely conventional? How can one know if changes to one’s religious life are true repentance or mere novelty? Today’s Gospel reading offers two objective criteria.
The first of those criteria is Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve “to take nothing for the journey.” (Mk. 6:8) They were to trust entirely in God for their sustenance, health, and well-being. Worry and fear are obstacles to faith, even when the worry or fear is about something essential to life. Worrying about food, comfort, or money creates sufficient distraction to draw one away from God. The first criterion that demonstrates the presence of real faith and legitimate repentance is the absence of worry and fear.
The second criterion is seen in the results of the preaching ministry of the Twelve. The Gospel says that they “drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mk 6:13) The preaching of the Twelve brought healing and reconciliation to the lives of those who received them. The second objective measure of the authenticity of one’s faith is the healing and reconciling effect that one has on others. When one’s life has the effect of bringing others closer to God, one can be assured that one’s religious practice is faithful.
The conventional religion of Amos’ time, and Jesus’ time, was found wanting not because it was predictable and comforting but because it produced no redemptive change in society. Jesus preached repentance and a personal renewal of faith that would lead to observable, positive renewal in the world.
Conventional religion maintains the status quo in order to avoid real repentance. Faithful religion is always open to change, not for the purpose of novelty but for the purposes of making God present to others and of bringing others to God.
Do you need to repent and change? Look around. If you see that the people around you suffer burdens, long for peace, and hope for a new experience of God, the answer is “yes.” If, on the other hand, you do not perceive that the people around you suffer burdens, long for peace, and hope for a new experience of God, then the answer is definitely “yes.”