Jesus called on people to change. Not just a little, but dramatically. Mark’s gospel reports that Jesus began his ministry with these words:
The ‘kingdom of God’ is the term Jesus used to express his vision of a profound transformation of human beings and human institutions—social, political, economic and religious—to fully express the character and nature of God—a God of love. To accomplish this vision, Jesus worked toward the creation of a new kind of community dedicated to values of compassion, generosity, peace, and justice. He was creating a movement for change, a people engaged in a vast conspiracy of love.
To lay the groundwork for the dawning of his vision, Jesus called on people to repent and believe in the good news. Repent and believe. It seems so simple. Traditionally, the reader would assume that Jesus wants us to feel bad about our past sins, resolve to do better, and believe that Jesus brings good news about what the future has in store for us. This reading views repentance and belief as a mostly internal experience of the heart and mind—first the emotional response of remorse and then an intellectual affirmation of whatever good news Jesus is announcing. These actions are entirely within one’s comfort zone. It is easy to repent and believe a few ideas about Jesus or his vision if this is all that is required. Paul’s letter to the Romans adds some content to the belief part: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Of course, Jesus did not necessarily agree with Paul on what to believe. In fact, the gospels they proclaimed were very different. Accordingly, Paul has led us astray when it comes to the intent of Jesus. When you view Jesus through the lens of Paul’s writings, the good news is distorted. The assumption is that we are being saved to experience an eternal life in heaven. This may be standard orthodox teaching, but it is way off the mark in regard to the message of Jesus, and misses his meaning of repentance and belief.
Something has been lost in translation—literally. First of all, Jesus and his followers spoke in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language related to Hebrew. Paul and the gospel writers wrote in Greek. We of course read these texts in English. We are trusting modern biblical translators to correctly interpret these texts for us, but unfortunately most have an agenda, and that often involves perpetuating orthodox Christian teaching. So let us examine the words ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ in the original Greek to get a better understanding of the real meaning of Jesus’ message and see what is missing from our bibles and our theology.
To our ears, repentance usually conveys a sense of guilt and regret. It is commonly understood as a feeling of remorse, and that is precisely how the church has conventionally used the term. But ‘repent’ doesn’t capture the true meaning of the Greek word metanoeite (met-an-oh-eh’-eet-eh), a form of the verb metanoeό (met-an-oh-eh’-oh), as used in the gospels. The noun metanoia (met-an’-oy-ah) is the more familiar term for many people, meaning a fundamental shift or movement (meta) of the mind (noia). It is a movement that takes us beyond the mindset of our cultural conformity—our conventional wisdom—into a new way of perceiving and thinking about the world around us. The repentance that Jesus speaks of is a transformative movement, a fundamental change of life that is deeper, more basic, and more far-reaching than our common understanding of the word ‘repentance.’ It is not about being sorry for the past. It is about thinking differently and changing the direction of our lives for the future. Metanoia essentially means to turn around, to change the form, to take on a whole new identity. It involves a change of orientation, direction, or character that is so pronounced and dramatic that the very form and purpose of a life is decisively altered and reshaped. It means to begin the journey of walking away from the old to the new.
The translation of metanoia as ‘repent’ began when the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin sometime around 384 CE by Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (c. 347-420), better known as St. Jerome. His Latin Vulgate translation used the phrase poenitentiam agite (pay-nih-ten′-see-ahm ah-ghee′-teh), which means “Go, and do penance” (a voluntary self-punishment). This error was compounded by Martin Luther (1483-1546) when he translated the New Testament into vernacular German in 1522. Luther worked from a 1519 Greek text compiled by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536), known to history as Erasmus. Luther translated metanoia as büßen or büssen (boo′sen), which means to atone, to redress, to do penance. So from the end of the sixteenth century on, Roman Catholics and many Protestants believed that Jesus was talking about regret, sorrow, remorse, or performing acts of contrition, instead of a radical change in thinking and living. Today, one biblical scholar referred to the translation of metanoia as ‘repent’ as “an utter mistranslation,” while another called it “the worst translation in the New Testament.” So why does it still appear incorrectly in most English translations?
To Jesus, metanoia was a change so dramatic that it implied starting over again through a metaphorical second birth.
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3:3)
Jesus’ declaration is not to be confused with what is commonly known as “born-again Christianity.” The rebirth of metanoia is not about inviting the resurrected presence of the Christ to enter our hearts while remaining firmly rooted in cultural conformity. Jesus was certainly not discussing speaking in tongues or other charismatic gifts often associated with born-again Christians. He was articulating an invitation to a new quality of life in the midst of the old. This is the essence of the life-change that has been traditionally symbolized by baptism. It is a fundamental transformation that enables us to begin the journey of a new life. It is like being reborn with a radically new perspective on the meaning of life and matters of ultimate concern.
The deep-seated change of metanoia that Jesus describes happens through a process of learning and growing. It involves learning a completely new way of thinking about life, being instructed in a new way of seeing reality. It means discarding conventional wisdom and traditional common sense for an unconventional wisdom and a transformed sense of purpose. Start by turning around and going the other way, Jesus says to us. You are a captive of your culture and, although you may not be able to see it, you are headed in the wrong direction. You are living in darkness, mired in confusion.
For instance, in America our cultural view of reality is one of climbing an economic ladder. As we climb, we tend to keep our eyes on the rung above, towards those who have more than we do. Because a few are incredibly wealthy, we tend to think of ourselves as poorer than we really are. When we turn around, as Jesus calls us to do, we look back down the ladder. Then we are able to see the vast majority of people who have far less than we do, and we begin to understand how incredibly wealthy we really are. It is a change of perspective, a shift of the mind, a whole new way of thinking. If embraced, one’s life becomes transformed; it becomes fundamentally altered.
Being born again is not about religion. It is about a way of living. It is a movement from greed to giving, from selfishness to servanthood, from social conformity to insurrection against the status quo. Jesus was talking about shifting allegiances and values away from a mainstream culture of power, domination, and violence to the kingdom values of selfless love, compassion, humility, equality, generosity, forgiveness, justice, peace, service, and inclusive community. This is what it means to be born anew. It is a movement from values that focus solely on ‘me’ to the embrace of values focused on ‘you’ and ‘us’ in a life of mutuality and service.
believe in the good news
The verb ‘believe’ is a translation of the Greek pisteuó (pist-yoo’-oh) which can mean ‘to believe,’ but more accurately means ‘to trust’ or ‘to have faith in.’ It is based on the noun pistis (pis’-tis), which means faith, belief, trust, confidence, and faithfulness. Normally, belief has the connotation of an intellectual acceptance of a proposition—a certainty that something is true, even in the absence of empirical evidence. Faith, likewise, implies great confidence in an idea. But faith is often a visible and outward expression of what is believed to be true in one’s head. Further, faith is a trust in something to the extent that one would be willing to bet one’s life on it. To be faithful within the context of any culture is to be seized by and devoted to whatever is believed to matter most in one’s life. Belief is a psychological state, while faith is a way of living. We often speak of this visible expression as a faith walk or faith journey.
The good news that Jesus proclaimed was a radical message of hope for people at the bottom of his society—the peasants and fishermen of Galilee. Jesus called on his followers to trust that the way of life he was teaching and modeling had the capability of transforming their lives and ultimately could change the world. He invited them to transform their old ways of thinking, and to shed their culture’s conventional wisdom in order to follow him. He asked them to risk their lives for this new way of living when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Taking up one’s cross in the context of first-century Roman Palestine meant a willingness to sacrifice one’s life in an engagement with political and economic power and a challenge to the unjust systems of the world.
So, both metanoia and pistis involve a committed change—a revolution in one’s way of thing and perceiving, and a life dedicated to that new reality, trusting that this is the right thing to do, that this is the most important thing to do, and that this new way is worth risking everything one has, including one’s life.
On the basis of this understanding, I would paraphrase the words in Mark’s gospel as:
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The decisive time has arrived,” he said. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Change your whole way of thinking and living, and risk everything for this radical message of hope.” (Paraphrase of Mark 1:15)
This translation describes doing something extraordinary—moving beyond one’s comfort zone to a radically different way of life. I do not believe that Jesus calls anyone to a comfortable existence. That was not his message to his first followers. Instead, Jesus calls people to a life of challenge and transformation.
The ‘way’ of Jesus begins with the transformation of individuals from a natural state of egocentric self-interest to a full embrace of self-giving love and compassion toward others. If there is anything that can be considered ‘original sin,’ it is that we are born with an inwardly-focused self-concern and selfishness. Nearly every human sin results from a preoccupation with oneself and an indifference to the needs of others. Jesus called on people to change at a fundamental level, replacing a natural self-centered focus with a self-giving love. Loving others is the only possible antidote to our inherently selfish nature. By acting compassionately, we in turn become compassionate people. Through the eyes of compassion, we perceive the world differently. We are able to see life from the bottom of society not from the top. We are able to identify with those at the margins of our culture—the unimportant, the powerless, and the expendable.
The mission of Jesus was twofold: the transformation of men and women into agents of love and the transformation of human societies into communities of compassion, equality, and justice. The purpose of the first—individual transformation—was intended to accomplish the second—social transformation. Both transformations are needed to make the God of love a reality in the world.
All too often, our perception of love is very shallow—a warm feeling of friendliness, a condescending generosity, or a gentle tolerance of the shortcomings of others. The love expressed by Jesus was an uncompromising love. It was a radical love of one’s enemies; a call to nonviolent resistance toward evil; an unending forgiveness toward those who have harmed us; an expansive generosity with those in need; an inviting inclusiveness with despised people; and a fundamental rejection of reciprocation of any kind—both good and evil. It is a love that moves us toward lives of reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, and justice in a hostile world. We must never confuse the expression of love with being nice. A nice person will never change the world. Only an ardent lover has a chance to bring about the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
Following Jesus is a relentless movement toward the better world that our hearts know is possible. When Jesus announced the kingdom of God, he was putting forth a vision of a world governed by love—more peaceful, more compassionate, more equitable, and more just. Planted deep in our hearts, this dream defines our mission as followers of Jesus. We are called to transform the hearts, minds, and politics of our cities and towns, our states, our nations, and the entire global community so that children everywhere will be fed, clothed, healed, and educated.
Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Seemingly insignificant actions by countless ordinary people—united in a common vision and inspired by a sense of hope that change is possible—can shatter the normalcy of injustice, hatred, and violence that is all around us.
Our task is to engage with others in conspiracies of love that will challenge the ideologies of selfishness, greed, power, exclusion, and domination that stand in the corridors of power and block the progress of the reign of love toward a just society. French theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) once said:
Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.
Jesus compared the conspiracy of love to a miniscule mustard seed that invades and spreads through a well-tended garden, a tiny bit of yeast that transforms a great batch of bread dough, a little pinch of salt that adds flavor to a large pot of soup, and a small lamp that reveals those things hidden in a darkened house.
Acts of compassion, charity, and justice not only help others, they also transform us into better people. As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In becoming better people, we have a chance to create a better world. If we live our lives as co-conspirators with Jesus, if we engage in his conspiracy of love in our time and place, his vision of the inbreaking reign of love will be fulfilled within us and around us one small sacred act at a time. And all we need is love.