We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, August 4, 2017

Matthew 4:17

In Matthew 4:17, Jesus began his public ministry with a deceptively simple message:  "Repent!  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"  Part of what makes it deceptive is the English word, "repent".  It is the word that the King James Bible (KJV) and its literary descendants including today's New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) use to translate the Greek word, metanoia (μετάνοια).  The problem with the word is that in English it means a feeling of remorse or regret.  It calls to mind the 19th century tradition of emotional crises where one falls on one's knees in trembling fear of sin and remorse over being a sinner.  Repentance was a stage on the path to conversion and salvation.  That's fine as far as it goes, but that was not what the first century author of Matthew had in mind.  Other versions, reflecting that fact, render metanoia in other ways, such as: "turn away" (Today's English Version); "change your life" (The Message); "change your heart" (Phillips); and "turn your lives around" (Laughing Bird Paraphrase).

The word used in Thai Bibles to translate metanoia is klubchai (กลับใจ), which in Thai Christian circles is usually thought to mean something like "repentance" in English.  It doesn't.  Literally, it is made up of two words, "return" (klub) and "heart" (chai), which is itself a word difficult to translate exactly into English.  It really means something like the "seat of consciousness," which the Thai language assigns to the heart rather than the mind.  Most literally in Thai, then, metanoia means changing one's mind and heart, the whole ball of wax.  There's nothing in the word about feelings of remorse; and that seems to be the way metanoia is used in Matthew and in the other gospels.  The classic parable here is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) where the son returns home because he is starving in a foreign country and calculates that he can get fed at home.  He even rehearses a line that he thinks will get him back in his father's good graces—a line in which he doesn't ask for forgiveness, just for a job so he can get fed.  In other words, using the word, "repent," to translate metanoia in this verse just messes us up.  It obscures the actual meaning with what amounts to theological jargon or, better still, religious-speak.

So, then, how do we understand what Jesus meant when he called on his auditors to "repent"?  It is helpful to go back to the 3-point message of the story of Jesus' temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), which in context provides the actual definition of metanoia here: focus on what matters, humble yourself, and worship and serve God.  Get a grip!  Figure things out!  Come to your senses!  Wise up!  The path to faithful discipleship doesn't begin with "repentance," so called.  It begins with wising up, getting a grip, and figuring things out.