When is the best time to repent? Now. Now is the time. Now is always the time. Who knows whether there will be time if you wait? This seems to be the approach of the Ninevites, who appear in the prophetic book of Jonah as the most eager of penitents. Scholars do not see Jonah as a historical account of a mission to Nineveh, but a didactic tale, even a satire, in which irony abounds. It features a recalcitrant prophet, who would rather see the Gentiles properly destroyed than saved, and sailors and denizens of a city noted for its evil and cruelty, who cannot wait to repent of their sins to a God they do not know.
Jonah is notorious for offering the pithiest prophetic message in the Old Testament, only five words in Hebrew: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The same verb used here to describe the coming destruction of Nineveh is used to pronounce the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19:21, 25 and 29. But its use by Jonah worked on the Ninevites! Upon hearing Jonah’s message, the people of Nineveh “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” The king of Nineveh becomes a model of true repentance, as he “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” and called on his people to “turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”
God’s gracious response to Nineveh puts Jonah’s petulant attitude in perspective: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” It is a humorous story, but it illuminates God’s universal compassion and mercy. Forgiveness is a sign of God’s power, cast in sharp relief here with the weakness of Jonah’s human pettiness.
God’s call to repentance in the particular case of Nineveh, however, is a universal call that knows no bounds except the human response: will we respond when the chance is offered? Paul called the Corinthians to see the world in its eschatological reality, “for the present form of this world is passing away.” While the apocalyptic end has not yet arrived, Paul’s warning retains its bite today, since all of those whom he first warned in Corinth had to face their own physical deaths. Whether the kingdom comes in power during our lives or we face our physical death as those who came before us did, we must reckon that now is the time of repentance. What other time is there?
Repentance, as the Ninevites demonstrated, is a simple process: turn from sin and turn to God. It is a process of letting go and mourning, like Augustine, the loss of the cruel comfort of sin. But we ought to concentrate more fully on what we gain, namely, a friend who guides us to the highest good, who calls us to the kingdom of God.
Jesus offers this guidance, announcing that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” It is also personal guidance, for he calls Simon and his brother Andrew as they are “casting a net into the sea…. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Repentance here is less about giving up a former life, though it is that, than about gaining a new life with Jesus.
The immediacy of repentance in Mark is also on display, for the new disciples respond without question and follow Jesus. In this way it is no different than the story on display in Jonah when he brings his message to Nineveh. It seems strange, perhaps unbelievable, that people would respond to God so quickly, but there is a reality buttressing these quick decisions. When the truth has been found, and the time is right, why not turn to the truth in fullness? Why not repent now? Why not follow now?