Metanoia is one of my favorite words in all of Scripture. Metanoia is also one of the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. In the very first chapter of the first gospel written sometime after the year 70, by the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we know as Mark, the story of Jesus begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordon, followed by a brief allusion to Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness.
In all of this, the anonymous-gospel-storyteller’s Jesus remains silent, speaking not a word until the verse 15thverse of the first chapter, where we are told that John has been arrested and Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God. Listen to the first account of the first words out of Jesus’ mouth, when Jesus’ proclaimed: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Jesus’ first words, according to the first of the four anonymous gospel accounts. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth, “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!”
After giving us this first proclamation of Jesus, the anonymous-gospel-storyteller immediately moves the story on by taking Jesus for a walk down by the Sea of Galilee in search of some fishers to whom Jesus speaks his next words, “Follow me!” and you know how the rest of the story goes.
Sadly, very few of us seem to pay much attention to the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!” Metanoia. Such a beautiful word. Such a monumental beginning. Metanoia if only we could hear the blessing Jesus offered humanity, with this wondrous commandment, metanoia. Sadly, this magnificent commandment metanoia has been abused over the centuries. Tragically, translators have for far too long, offered us a severely limited translation of metanoia; a translation which fails to capture the richness or the beauty of metanoia.
For far too long, far too many of us have been stuck in our ways, the very ways from which Jesus was trying to set people free. We have been stuck in our ways but the little, limiting, restrictive, incomplete, dare I say, ugly translation of the word metanoia. Repent. Repent, I say. Repent! Repent, look it up. Worse yet, Google it. Repent, let me quote Google for you, Repent means, “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” Google even uses it in a sentence: “the priest urged his listeners to repent.” Can it be that the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “feel or express sincere regret or remorse”? Well, I’m sure that there are all sorts of people who believe that we must repent if we want to follow Jesus. But as for me, I’m not buying it.
Did you ever notice how very often the little English word “repent” is followed by a dire warning designed to inspire fear? Repent or else something terrible is going to happen to you! The number of times the little word “repent” is used to inspire fear and trembling in the name of Jesus, makes me wonder why so many of Jesus’ would-be followers have forgotten Jesus’ instructions about fear itself. Why is it that so many Christians are so well versed in the Ten Commandments, or the Greatest Commandment but so very few of us are as well versed in the top commandment? By top commandment, I mean the commandment most often cited in our sacred Scriptures. The commandment, “Do not be afraid,” appears 366 times in the Bible. As they say in Ireland, “366 times that’s once for every day of the year and once for no reason at all.” “Do not be afraid.” In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament, we hear first the voice of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call, “God,” say it again and again, and then Jesus says over and over again, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus is positively pre-occupied with the notion that we should not fear, have no fear, fear NOT! So, why are so many of Jesus’ followers so willing to choose fear? Fear is not Good News! Fear wells up from the darkest regions of our psyche and limits our capacity to be all that we are created to be, precisely because fear makes us obsess about our own self-interests and limits our ability to see beyond our needs to the needs of others. Fear limits our ability to co-operate with others and co-operation is the only hope for humanity.
There’s a story from India which sheds light upon the darkness of our fear. People have told this story for several thousand years. It’s about a man who was condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. The man was warned that if he made the slightest movement, the snake would be on top of him, and he would surely die. So, the man stood in the corner of the cell, directly opposite to where the snake was, and he was petrified. He barely dared to breathe for fear of alerting the snake to his presence. The man stood stiff in the corner. He was actually petrified all night long. The next morning, as the first rays of light began to come into the cell, the man was scarcely able to make out the shape of the snake, and he said to himself, “I am so lucky that I never stirred once during the night. But as the sun rose higher, when the full force of the light came into the cell, the man could finally see that the focus of his fear wasn’t a snake at all. It was nothing more than an old rope.
In so many of the rooms in our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners. When our fear begins to work on us, we convert those old ropes into monsters, who hold us prisoner in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our minds. Outside of these rooms there are glories waiting for us, but we remain transfixed and sometimes even paralyzed by our fears. For far too long now, the old rope of repentance has inspired fear in far too many people and humanity is not the better for it.
“This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!” Metanoia, a Greek word made up of two Greek words: “meta” which means, “beyond” and “noos” which means “mind”. Metanoia is a full rich phrase which can be translated in many ways, ways beyond the fear-inspiring word “repent”. Metanoia is an invitation to move beyond your current way of thinking. Metanoia is an invitation to think new thoughts.
Theologian Ron Rolheiser moved me beyond my own ways of thinking about metanoia when he described the first words out of Jesus’ mouth as a pun on the word “paranoia” also from two little Greek words “para” to be beside and “noos” for mind. To be beside one’s mind is the Greek for madness. Today the word paranoia is used as a diagnosis for the irrational fear that people are out to get you. Rolheiser interprets the first words out of Jesus mouth as an invitation away from paranoia and into metanoia. Or as Jesus and the prophets before him continuously proclaimed, “have no fear,” “do not be afraid,” or “Fear NOT!” 366 times.
Metanoia, come out of your fearful mind, move beyond fear, think new thoughts. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand!” The basileia ton theou, the reign of God, the kin-dom, the family of DIVINITY is Good News because it is at hand. Peace through justice is at hand, right here and right now, DIVINITY’s Reign of peace through justice, is within our grasp, through our hands, and our minds, and our dreams, beyond our fear. If we will only metanoia and believe the Good News! If we will only move beyond our current ways of thinking, beyond our fear-induced notions, beyond our paranoia, beyond ourselves, to LOVE. LOVE the greatest of the commandments. Let us metanoia, move beyond our fear to LOVE, so that all may know the kin-dom of the DIVINE MYSTERY we call God, the ONE who is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that Also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF. Amen.
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