Repentance: Possibility and Purpose

Updated: May 7, 2019

Today, we're digging into Matthew 4:17-22.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Perhaps the biggest mistake we can make when interpreting this admonition from Jesus is to identify it with the stereotypical image of the 19th or 20th century street preacher warning of coming judgment. “The end is nigh! Get yourself right or else!” Though Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:17 have often been interpreted in this way, to do so categorically misses the point of what he is saying.

To begin with, it gets repentance wrong. Repentance, in our religious and cultural context, has been reduced to feelings of guilt and shame, perhaps accompanied by a sort of cosmic apology. To repent, though, essentially means to change things up. It is not about apology but action, redirecting one’s energies and focus. It is no accident that the author of Matthew describes Jesus going around telling people to repent and then immediately follows that up with the story of Jesus’ calling four of the disciples. When Jesus tells Simon (Peter) and Andrew to “come follow,” they immediately drop their nets, turn, and follow him. Ditto for James and John. This is a story of repentance; the four disciples in question shift their focus from subsisting as laborers in the 1st century Roman Imperial economy to working instead for the coming of the “kingdom.” Repentance, then, has less to do with morality and more to do with purpose. Jesus wasn’t an anti-fishing activist telling Peter and co. that what they were doing was wrong. He was simply saying, “Hey, come follow me instead.” Repentance isn’t about “living right.” It’s about living for something.

We won’t understand the full meaning of repentance, though, if we don’t also understand Jesus’ answer to the question, “Why now? Why repent now in particular?” Because the kingdom of heaven has come near! Therefore, we have to dig deeper into the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” The word translated as “kingdom” here is the Greek basileia, which can mean rule, reign, or empire. In effect, the “empire” of heaven is being set over against the empire of Rome, the political and social order of the day being radically called into question. Jesus’ directive to repent in light of the fact that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” then, is literally the exact opposite of the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Jesus is telling those whom he is addressing not to accept the status quo because the coming of the kingdom utterly undermines statements like “that’s just how it is.” Don’t be complacent. Don’t despair. Why? “The kingdom of heaven is near.” The world isn’t what we thought it was. It’s full of suffering and full of possibility. How? “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Far from the existential-claustrophobia-inducing “the end is nigh,” the nearness of God’s reign explodes the limits of what we thought possible. Repentance is nothing less than a turning, a reorienting to this new reality where things are not just “that way,” people and systems are capable of change, and low-wage workers like Peter and Andrew have more to offer the world than their catch of the day. Repentance is not about preparing for the end; it is a beginning.

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