This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. Yesterday we considered the use of this text during the Season of Advent. Today, we delve into Matthew’s idea of “repentance.”
A summary of Matthew’s gospel comes at the very beginning (Mt 3: 2), where John’s preaching is summarized in exactly the same words Jesus will use later on (4:17): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Both preachers demand a radical conversion of the whole person to God, and both urge it as preparation for the new age when the God of Israel will be acknowledged as the Lord by all creation.
The phrase “is at hand” does not do justice to the perfect tense of engizō, which literally means “has come near”. The perfect is used also in 26:45 and 46 (cf. Luke 21:8, 20) and introduces a state of affairs which is already beginning and which demands immediate action. John’s summons is urgent: the time for decision has already come.
The Greek for “repent” (metanoeo) means, “to change one’s mind.” However, given Matthew’s emphasis on “bearing fruit,” his idea of “repentance” probably goes back to the Hebrew shuv — “to change one’s ways.” It involves more than just thinking in a different way. The word “Repent” is really a command, and is in the present tense, which denotes continual or repeated actions, i.e., “Keep on repenting!” Repentance is not a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom; repentance is the ongoing life of the kingdom people here and now. Warren Carter enhances this understanding by noting that when people repent when they prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Both “way” and “path” are metaphors for God’s will and purposes (Deut 5:33; Jer 7:23; Matt 7:13-14). God’s purposes, manifested in Jesus, will be experienced either as salvation or as condemnation depending on one’s response to the call – here seen in John’s call to repent. To repent signifies, then, not only specific changes in structures and ways of living, but a basic receptivity to God’s purposes.
Repentance is also a daily renewal of our baptismal vows. St Paul wrote: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Roman 6:3–4). It is living the newness of life that is the focus of repentance best understood. But there is a potential pitfall. If we understand living the newness of life as a sequence of “I can” – “I am sorry for my sins. I can do better. I can please you, God.” Then we over accent our “doing” to our openness to God’s will. It is the subtle difference between our turning to God without recognizing that in Jesus God has turned to us.
In repenting we ask the God, who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. In other words, to repent is to volunteer and ask that the “death of self” which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day. The repentant person comes before God saying, “I can’t do it myself, God. Let me die to self so that you can give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.” That is the language of repentance. Repentance is a daily experience that renews our baptism.
Image credit: Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635, a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain