The First Teaching of Jesus: Metanoia

From that time on, Jesus began to preach ans say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
— Matthew 4:17

In the beginning of Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, we read that Jesus went around from village to village giving his teachings. Most of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are specific, that is, they are described as a teaching he gave at one particular place and time. But at that start of both Matthew and Mark, we have this overview of his message. These passages serve as the key summary in the gospels - the essence of what Jesus was teaching. Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time on Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ” We’ll get back to that word that’s typically translated as repent in a moment. In Mark it’s a little bit broader. The parallel passage in Mark’s gospel says, “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘Now is the time of fulfillment. The realm of God is at hand. Repent, and trust in the gospel.’ ” The essence is this – God’s full presence is here – in this instant, right where we are. It’s in our midst. It is not something off in another place, or in a later time (for example, after our personal death) – it is here and now, ‘at hand’. The fullness of Divine Life, and our abiding union with God, is 100% available right now. But somehow, we don’t experience life this way.

In response to this gap between the reality of God’s 100% availability and our inability to perceive this presence, Jesus’ central teaching also contains a call to ‘repentance’. The Greek word metanoia is typically translated as ‘repent’ in Matthew and Mark. It has two parts. First the word meta- which comes from the same root that we now use in the word meta-analysis (a study that includes all the other studies) or metaphysics (physics beyond ordinary physics). The word meta- means ‘change’, but it also means ‘expansion’. Often when we hear the word ‘repent’ we just think about feeling sorrow and trying to do things differently with our will. But the word actually means a deepening or expansion, an opening up to something that’s at a greater level of reality. That’s the meta-.

The second part of the word is –noia, which is derived from the Greek word nous.  Nous can be translated as mind or heart or consciousness. Nous is the part of ourselves that sees things spiritually. The phrase I’ve used to translate –noia in my contemplative translation of the Gospel of Mark is “the eyes of the heart”. It’s the part of our self that sees spiritually.

This word that Jesus uses, metanoia, that is often translated as ‘repent’ has this more nuanced meaning of “change or transform of the eyes of your heart”. Open up! There’s this other reality – the realm of God that is always here in every moment. But we don’t normally see it. We don’t attend to it with our ordinary awareness or consciousness. So, Jesus’ call is to transformation, which is not the same thing as the command to try harder. It’s not the instruction to take one set of thoughts and ideas and replace them with a new set of thoughts and ideas. It’s actually about moving into a level of perception that is different from our ordinary mind, so that we can open to the reality of the presence of God that is already here at every moment. We can cross-reference this teaching with other teachings of Jesus. When someone asks him about the kingdom/realm of God in Luke 17:21, and Jesus says, “You won’t find it here or there, because it is within you and among you.” It’s already here in our midst.

One of the non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, has a record of the same teaching that is even more explicit. It reads, "(The Kingdom) will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it." I think this is probably an authentic teaching of Jesus. It sounds very similar to the teachings in Matthew, Mark and Luke, just with a slightly different angle to it. In essence, the kingdom is here in our midst, but we need to open to it in a new way.

This teaching is an important piece of the spiritual life because without out it we can get the idea that turning to God is just renewing our effort again. Instead, the whole story of the gospel is about emptying out the self, to let God live in us in a new way. It’s a letting go of control and letting God be all.

The prayer practice that goes along with this is known as kenotic prayer, which means ‘self-emptying.’ It’s a pure form of prayer where we’re letting go of our control and allowing God to be God. It’s not asking for anything. It’s not trying to obtain anything from prayer. It’s humbly coming before God and saying, “I’m willing to let go of my own control and beliefs. Here I am seeking your presence.” And then we allow that to be enough.