The readings for today confront us with a fundamental and perhaps uncomfortable conviction of our Christian faith—the need for repentance. The first reading for today recounts the famous encounter of the prophet Nathan with King David. The Bible loves David, idealizing him as the creator of the Psalms, as a handsome and engaging personality, as a brave (remember Goliath?) and shrewd soldier. But the Scriptures refuse to portray David as blameless. In fact, as this story today reminds us, David failed miserably, allowing his lust for Bathsheba to lead him to plot the murder of her husband Uriah.
It is this violent sin that leads the prophet to confront the king. Nathan tells the story of a poor man who had nothing to console him but a little lamb that he had raised. But a powerful rich man blithely steals the lamb to serve a meal to a visitor, devastating the poor man. When David hears this story he is filled with indignation: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this merits death!” And then the prophet lowers the boom and declares to David, “You are the man!”
Realizing his sin, David confesses his guilt: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Although David has taken the life of Uriah, Nathan assures him that God is forgiving. Yet even so, the damage that David has done to Uriah and to his marriage lingers. And for that, David did penance.
The psalm response is taken from Psalm 51, recited every Friday in the church’s morning prayer. It, too, is a prayer of repentance, asking God’s forgiveness. “Create a clean heart in me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”
The gospel selection for today seems, at first, to go in a different direction. It is the haunting account of the storm at sea from Mark’s Gospel. While Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat, the disciples fear for their lives engulfed in a raging storm. They awake him, accusing him of neglecting them at a time of distress: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” In a demonstration of his overwhelming power and authority, Jesus rebukes the wind and calms the sea—a power reserved to God alone in the Bible. “Why are you terrified?” Jesus asks, “Do you not yet have faith?”
Yet there is a connection with the theme of repentance. Our faith does not leave us crushed with guilt for our own sins or discouraged by so much failure and violence in the world around us that we despair of our future. For us, too, it may seem that God’s presence is missing. But this gospel scene reassures us of God’s loving and compassionate presence even in the midst of the storms that threaten to overwhelm us.
Today’s reminder about the need for repentance is grounded in the reality of our lives—we do fail and sometimes seriously so. The celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation lays out the components of true repentance. We are urged to admit our failings and to ask forgiveness. We do “penance” to rectify the harm we have done. We are also urged to have “a firm purpose of amendment”—that is, to ask God for the strength to change our ways and to renew our life. But the last word is always “absolution”—the assurance of God’s unlimited forgiveness.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.