By Ed Sciulli
The Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said “Words…create worlds.”
So, if the words we use create the worlds in which we live, then the definition of those words are of paramount importance. Get those definitions wrong and you run the risk of creating false worlds.
When Jesus began preaching in the gospel of Matthew, He uses these words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17) The kingdom of heaven seems like a pretty big deal, so Jesus’ command to “repent” seems like something we should obey.
I was always taught that to repent means to feel bad about doing something wrong (sin) and to stop doing it. The common definition usually contains the phrase “to turn away from your sin and to turn to God.” In using this definition, the starting point is sin: the wrongdoing, the source of our remorse.
In using these words, my world became focused on sin - that of my own doing and of others. And this created a world in which I could never measure up and in which I judged others as equally worthless as I felt. I was always letting down God and heaping more burdens upon Jesus do have to deal with on the cross.
But then, I learned some new words.
Since the new testament wasn’t written in English, I looked for the Greek that would be applicable. And here I found something wonderful. I found “metanoia”. Metanoia means to change one’s thinking. So in context, Jesus says in Matthew “Change your thinking, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus brought about a new way to live, a new covenant. And for us to have this new life, we need to change our thinking. Change our thinking to a better way to live, to change from thinking that our sins will bring us joy, fulfillment and freedom. This a different world for me, one that begins with an invitation to something better, something that brings true life and freedom. Metanoia is a better word; an invitation to life is a better world than one that begins with sorrow and sin.
So I checked out some Hebrew on the topic. And guess what I found.
I found t’shuvah!
T’shuvah (besides being fun to say aloud, try it!) carries much of the same meaning as repentance, that is to say, to turn away from one’s sin. But there is something a little extra in t’shuvah. T’shuvah literally means to return. So the idea is turn away from your sin by RE-turning to God. This is an invitation to come home. To come back to the place we were never supposed to leave. So here, Jesus says “Come home to your Father, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (You can find a great teaching on this in the gospel of Luke with the Parable of the Lost Son.)
T’shuvah is a great word. And the invitation to come back home to the table, back to the family and back to the path God has laid out for us is a much better world in which to live.
Words create worlds. And now my world, as far as repentance goes, includes new layers of invitations to change my thinking to the ways of Jesus to return home to my place in God’s family when I stray into the wilderness of sin.
And this is a much better world.