From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17
The first instruction from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). This line is exactly what John the Baptist is quoted as saying earlier in Matthew (3:2) and occurs after Jesus has been baptized by John and spent 40 days in the wilderness. It seems safe to assume these words hold a special significance, since they mark the beginning of his ministry. What does it mean, exactly, to repent? The current understanding has largely to do with being sorry for poor behavior. In Catholic traditions, parishioners can attend confession, where they admit to a priest where they have fallen short in the recent past: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” Certainly, confessing our shortcomings and seeking forgiveness is a healthy practice, but the fuller meaning of repentance goes beyond being sorry for less-than-stellar behavior.
Dictionary.com1 defines repent as “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better” (emphasis added). The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “a transformative change of heart: especially, a spiritual conversion.”2 To repent is to turn around or to make a conscious choice to change the direction of one’s life. It goes to the core of our being and seeks to change us from there. Much more than saying, “I’m sorry,” to repent is a determined, sustained, and conscious action to chart a different course for one’s life. This, then, is Jesus’ initial instruction for those who wish to follow him.
For me, there is an Advent-feel about repentance in that it invites us to prepare for something magical and mystical. It is magical in that the life Jesus calls us to is largely foreign to our daily routines. It is mystical in that it cannot be explained or foreseen except by faith. In Luke 3:4, John the Baptist, echoing the prophet Isaiah, says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s Gospel records the words as “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). To the extent that John’s words are a call to repentance, it is a call to a process and not a single event; a preparation for an extended journey, as opposed to a specific destination.
This directive from Jesus for repentance is about a new focus for our lives. Jesus offers a bridge to this new life, but the first step of this journey of the heart is ours to choose. In a recent daily meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else.”3 This journey is not one of becoming upwardly mobile in order to rub elbows with the societal elite. There is not anything wrong with upward mobility, per se, except that is not an orientation conducive to finding God. Its motivations are wrongly placed. Our deepest essence cannot be focused on material gain and also upon God. In fact, the journey Jesus invites us to is more likely to take us among those society rejects. We, along with Mary and Joseph, must make the long heart-journey to Bethlehem and find our way to the dark of the stable. The Christ within will not be born among the lights and parties at the Inn with everybody who is anybody. There is no room there for this birth. The Christ within is born in the simplicity, solitude, and minimal provision of the stable.
To repent is to change our priorities. We focus less on ourselves and more on others. We are less concerned with accumulating stuff and more on acquiring useful items for those in need. Our priorities shift from success to meaning. This change is not something forced upon us, that we are guilted into beginning, or even something that is possible without our willing consent. As we turn our faces toward God, we are naturally pulled in a new direction, a direction an earlier version of ourselves likely would have shunned. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
1 Dictionary.com, Sourced January 8, 2018. 2 Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/metanoia, Sourced January 8, 2018. 3 Richard Rohr. Daily Meditations,cac.org. Published and sourced January 9, 2018.