Literally speaking, Jesus never said “Repent”

At my first solo church, New Chapel UMC, we began ESL and after school mentoring. When Vacation Bible School rolled around one of our Spanish speaking leaders, Claudia, borrowed a bus from Greenbriar UMC to bring children.  Like a good pastor, I stood out in the parking lot greeting the children with one of a few Spanish phrases I thought I knew. As they got off the bus, the children stared at me as if I had green tentacles or an extra nose protruding from my forehead.  When Claudia got off the bus, she could not stop laughing.  It seems I had welcomed the children by saying over and over “good wine!”  

I hope you are not surprised to hear that there is no historical evidence of Jesus ever speaking English. We know Jesus spoke in Greek, likely Aramenaic, and perhaps read in Hebrew. (Luke 4, John 5) The New Testament was largely written in Greek and not translated into English until 1382. So Jesus never literally said the English word, “Repent.”

Maybe it should temper our legalistic tendencies to remember that a team of human translators stands between us and the actual words that Jesus spoke.  Christianity has generally embraced or ignored the ambiguity that translation introduces.  Forty days after Easter the Holy Spirit blessed the translation of Jesus’s words into a host of other languages.  Acts chapter 2 recounts how “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; Mesopotamians, Judean, and Cappadocian, those from Pontus and Asia, Greeks and Arabs—we all hear (the apostles) declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages! Everyone was surprised and bewildered.” Just as the Holy Spirit spoke through human beings with names and histories like Moses or Mary, God uses human beings to translate the Bible into English, Spanish or Arabic. In Matthew 18, Jesus endorses the translation of Scriptures giving the church power to tighten up or relax the Scriptures. Jesus’ Incarnation, the Spirit’s Day of Pentecost, the Damascus Road, and maybe your own holy moments teach us that God is still warming hearts, awakening our consciences, and leading us into new insights.*  The same Spirit that gave us the Scripture is guiding us as we open it today. 

God is with us as scholars and language experts translate the Scriptures, but sometimes important things get lost or added during translation. The original Greek word or phrase may not have an exact English match. Way back in 1930, the Southern Baptist professor and New Testament Greek expert AT Robinson noted that the English word “repent” is “the worst translation in the New Testament”, because the Greek word (“metanoeite”) carries none of the emotional baggage within the English “repent”. Robertson writes that  “John (the Baptizer and Jesus) did not call people to feel sorry but to change their mental attitudes and conduct”.  A better rendering of “metanoeite” or repent is “turn ye” or “Change” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 Mt 3:2, SBC Sunday School Board 1930)! Thanks be to God, that the Common English Bible that some of our church members worked on makes a better translation: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

Last week’s reading from Isaiah 58 shows us how shame based messages do little to produce real holy living.  “(God speaks) Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction,  of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?  Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (The implied Divine response is a resounding NO! Feeling bad will not make you more Holy- Love transforms hearts and minds.)  Isaiah continues: “Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of oppressive yokes, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every crushing yoke? Isn’t worship about sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house,covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? … Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly.” God is not interested in a church sitting around in uncomfortable clothes, feeling ashamed, judging and beating themselves up.  Such shame does not produce the justice, mercy and love God requires of us! Jesus’ call “to change our hearts and minds” is not an effort to guilt us into conversion, shackle us with heavy burdens and or bury us under a load of guilt and shame. (Matthew 23 & Micah 6) Jesus calls us “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11)  Jesus is not calling us to feel sorry, bad, worthless. Jesus is not even calling us sinners. Jesus is calling us to think and act differently.  Shame rarely changes us, Love always does.  

Jesus’ call “Change your hearts and lives!” was not a surprising message, but the second clause, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” was a bit of a shock. Jesus declared that God’s kingdom was not coming someday, way off in the future or on that uncloudy day in heaven. Jesus calls us to “come, come on right now, follow me” Jesus invites us to start remaking the world right now!  Perhaps, understanding what Dr King called “the fierce urgency of the now”, Matthew notes that “right away” the disciples leave their nets dripping on the drying racks and follow Jesus.  King notes: “And Jesus came saying: “‘The Time is Now’”. (Mark 1:15) “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from “Beyond Vietnam”.) The disciples leave their nets dripping.  

And what does it mean to fish for people? “Fishing for people” is not passing out tracts or inventing clever church marketing hooks.  Following Jesus leads us to join Jesus in providing free healthcare and counseling those with mental illness.  The kindom of Heaven is at hand right now, right here in the needs of others. It always is. Jesus leads these four to travel all over Galilee bringing healing, preaching hope, and sometimes feeding as many as 5000 people at a time.  As they do this work, the disciples constantly return to a small group to process their unfolding faith (learning together as they practice together).  Following Jesus is a cycle of worshiping, serving, processing, and repeating. (Luke 10). 

Peter, James and John changed their occupations to follow Jesus, but God does not call most people to become preachers. The Apostle Paul, history’s most influential Christian, never stopped working as a tentmaker. Marcus Borg tells us a better translation of  “tentmaker” is awning-maker, a high demand trade in cities like Antioch which had 5 story condos and a population density higher than New York City. ( Marcus Borg The First Paul)   Sunshades brought much relief in the Mediterranean heat so Paul never lacked work allowing Paul to plant churches in cities like Antioch, Corinth,and Ephesus, while writing half the New Testament. (Acts 18) God is likely not calling you to find a new job, but to do your work for the benefit of others; loving your neighbor as yourself.  

What do changed hearts and lives look like?  In the next three chapters, Jesus sits down and tells us how our following Christ changes us: “Blessed are you who are humble, merciful, peace-makers, and prophetic. Jesus then calls us into a deeper heart-level obedience that rule-keeping faith never brings.  “You have heard it taught from long ago not to murder”- but you gotta stop hating.  You know it’s wrong to cheat on your partner but stop treating others like sexual commodities. It’s not enough to not lie, be straightforward. It’s not enough to love those neighbors who love you, no, do the loving thing not for repayment, but because it’s who you are- do the right thing even for enemies. Stop living for treasures on earth- fish for people. Stop judging other people- trust God. It’s not enough to pray “Lord, Lord”, “No! Change the way you think and live”. 

Come, Come on, right now, follow Jesus. Take up a different yoke. Don’t stew in guilt or shame, come and follow Christ who shows us a richer and deeper way to live than our unfulfilling allegiance to catching fish, buying boats, or adding onto our homes. Come, follow Jesus who shows us a more alive way to live, right here, right now, on earth as in heaven.  Amen   

* In the EUB Confession of Faith Article IV, we United Methodists affirm about — The Holy Bible:  We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God (we add a qualifier) so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  (We add a methodology) It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. (We see the purpose of Scripture is to help us practice our faith).  We believe the same Spirit that gave us the Scripture is guiding us as we open it today. 

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