The gospels tell us that Jesus’ message is summed up in the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When I hear those words, cartoons of doomsday preachers come to mind - pictures of bearded, hair-coated prophets holding signs predicting the end of the world and urging people to get their act together before it is too late.
It is not a pretty sight. When seen in this way, Jesus’ words feel like a divinely inspired guilt trip causing me to feel bad about myself, my behavior and my thoughts. When I hear “Repent,” my immediate reaction is to feel bad, which is supposed to produce an inner resolve to be good.
That is not what repentance really means. Repentance is not an apocalyptic attitude prompting a moral conversion because of the imminent threat of death or hellfire. We have known that for at least a hundred years, but it seems not to have found its way into the pulpit or the pews.
At the end of the nineteenth century a scholar named Treadwell Walden wrote a two hundred page book on the meaning of the biblical Greek word for repentance entitled “The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia.” It became a classic and was followed by other Greek scholars. Walden says that the translation of metanoia as repentance is “an extraordinary mistranslation.”
In his book “Topical Analysis of the Bible” biblical scholar J. Glentworth Butler agreed that the Greek word carries none of the sorrow or regret contained in the words repentance and repent. The great Greek scholar A. T. Robertson agreed. He says that translating metanoia as repentance is “a linguistic and theological tragedy.” A surprisingly good survey of the misunderstanding of this important spiritual concept can be found in Wikipedia.
Then what does it mean to repent? Robertson says that a better translation is “change of mind, a change in the trend and action of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional and moral,” “a transmutation of consciousness.”
Jesus is not talking about feeling sorry, regretful and guilty. He is talking about a spiritual transformation that happens through the grace of God working in our lives. The English word “repent” means “to rethink, to think again.” The Greek word means the same thing – a change of mind.
The Greek word metanoia is formed from two smaller words – the prefix “meta” and the word “nous.” The prefix meta can mean “with, after, or behind.” It can also carry the sense of “beyond” as in the word metaphysics. Nous is the mind or understanding. Metanoia means a change of mind that involves going “behind the mind” or “beyond the mind.”
What does this lesson in etymology mean for us? It probably means that I have bored my readers to death. But if your eyes are still open, I hope you will see that Jesus is pointing us to a shift in thinking, a transformation of mind that catapults us into the Kingdom of God, which is always at our fingertips – for those with minds open to see.
Cartoon by Rex F. May, 2010, www.baloocartoons.com