Blessed Are They Who Change Their Minds

Reading the gospel in Greek helps redefine the meaning of repentance.

Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour
Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour

Have you ever noticed what are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? In his first chapter, Mark gives a summation of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee. It goes like this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15]

This is Jesus’ preaching in a sound bite version. It is one sentence. It is, however, a weighty sentence. Let me unpack it.

First, Jesus makes a theological assertion. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The Greek word translated time is the word kairos. This Greek word denotes an appointed time, a deadline or a meeting date we might enter into an appointment calendar.

To understand what Jesus is saying we must also cast an eye back to the Old Testament. This time is the time of which the Hebrew prophets often spoke. It is the long-anticipated but also long-delayed time when God would come to deliver his people, to establish justice in the earth, to make unchallenged his sovereignty over the whole earth, and, finally, to usher in an era of universal peace and healing.

That time, Jesus says, has arrived at last. The kingship of God is about to be established fully. Its arrival is right on our doorstep. This would have been astoundingly good news (gospel) to the oppressed people of Galilee… as it continues to be for believers today.

But make no mistake about it. It is a theological claim, whether we believe it or not.

Ethics Follow the Theology

Then Jesus draws the implications for behavior that grow out of this claim. Repent, and believe the good news. Behavior follows upon the theology. (This, by the way, is the same pattern we find in the apostle Paul’s letters, where the first portion of his letters lays out Paul’s theology. In the second portion he draws out the implications of that theology for how Christians are to live. His Letter to the Romans is a classic example.)

Now here’s where knowing a little Greek starts to make things interesting. The Greek word translated repent is the Greek verb metanoeite. Most Bible translators translate it as repent, but I am not sure our common English understanding of repentance does justice to the Greek verb.

We today have this idea that repentance means primarily feeling remorse or contrition for our sins and failures and then resolving to change. Our classic image of repentance is one favored by Renaissance painters. It shows a disheveled Mary Magdalene weeping in front of a burning candle. Repentance for us, therefore, has a very strong emotional cast to it.

The root of metanoeite, however, does not have this strong emotional cast. More literally, it means to change one’s mind. It, therefore, has a more mental rather than emotional flavoring. What it refers to might be more accurately described as changing a mindset, or revising a particular way of looking at things.

What we are being asked to change is those customary ways we approach life, those deep-seated assumptions and convictions that govern our behavior. These assumptions and convictions may be deeply embedded in our psyche. They often come from childhood interpretations of our experiences. They become a part of our emotional make-up. But they are not ephemeral feelings in themselves. They are settled assumptions from which we approach life, react in our relationships, and determine how we will behave.

The Power of Mindsets

Repentance then is discarding or at least revising these settled assumptions in the light of the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. If we really believe this to be good news, it will shake up and transform how we see life and how we behave. We will come to look at life differently, to feel differently, and then to act differently.

In this respect, repentance may involve us in a dramatic change of direction in our life. That change may have strong emotional resonances. But it all begins with that change of mindset.

If this sounds unfamiliar, let me provide an example to clarify what I mean. In a segment of the British TV comedy Faulty Towers, Basil, the hotel owner, learns that a representative of the hotel industry will be visiting his hotel secretly and rating it.

Basil is consumed with frantic anxiety about this upcoming visit. He is determined that this secret inspector will be given a royal treatment while he is staying at the hotel. When a particular guest registers, Basil is convinced that he is the secret inspector. And so he fawns all over this guest, trying to anticipate his every need and whim and satisfying it. In the process Basil makes a fool of himself.

Of course this guest is not the secret inspector. Another guest is, but Basil brushes this other guest off and treats him rudely. Only at the end of the segment does Basil learn his mistake.

It makes for uproarious laughter, but the segment also shows the power of how our beliefs shape our behavior. Basil might have saved the day if he had been willing to question his basic assumptions about who was the inspector and who was not. If he had, his behavior might have dramatically changed, too.

If we believe life is a dog-eat-dog world, then we will live a life based upon one-up-man-ship, keeping a close eye on every opportunity to upend or do in our competitors. If we believe life is structured to beat us down, then we will approach most relationships with suspicion and fear. If, on the other hand, we believe that a loving God is our constant companion throughout our days, then we will approach life with far greater resilience.

Our mindset does indeed shape how we feel and how we act. And if we really believe the Christian gospel message that the kingdom of God has entered into our world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, then we may need to engage in some serious change in our fundamental assumptions, convictions, and mindsets. That is repentance.

This insight gives rise to a new beatitude: Blessed are they who change their minds.

An Added Note:

Do not take what I have just written as my assuming such a transformation of our mindsets is an instantaneous experience for most of us. It is not. For most of us, it is a journey, a life-long journey. But that is the subject for another blog posting someday.

The Mysterious Grounds for Faith

When reality seems to deny any confidence we have in God, how can faith persist?

We do not get very far into reading the Gospel of Mark before Mark starts to recount stories of Jesus’ miracles. We have three accounts already in chapter 1, with allusions to several others. These three accounts report healing miracles. They are short and largely unembellished.

Chapter 2 begins with another, more colorful, account (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus is in the Galilean town of Capernaum. He is teaching in a house. A large crowd has gathered to hear him.

While he is teaching, several men bring a paralyzed man to him to heal. The crowd is so dense around Jesus that they cannot get close to him in the house. So the men climb onto the house roof, open a hole in the roof, and lower their friend to Jesus on a pallet.

Presented with this disabled man, Jesus first forgives his sins (an action that scandalizes the religious scholars in the audience) and then commands the man to rise and walk. The paralyzed man does just that, carrying his pallet out of the house.

The Centrality of Faith to the Healing

What I find fascinating about this story is the reason Mark gives for Jesus performing this healing. Mark says that Jesus does this when he sees the faith of the friends who bring this paralyzed man to him. It is not the man’s own faith that leads to his healing. It is the faith of his companions.

I found myself dwelling on that detail. Just exactly what was the faith these companions were expressing? It was not a recitation of beliefs. Jesus does not ask them to recite a creed before he heals. They do not acknowledge his Messiahship or his divinity. So what did constitute their act of faith?

When the companions bring their friend to Jesus and open up the roof to let him down into Jesus’ presence, they do so out of a confidence that Jesus will indeed heal their friend. They have a confidence in Jesus’ desire and power to do the healing.

It is that trust in Jesus’ good will and power that constitute their faith. They trust that Jesus will not turn them away when they approach him and that he will in fact have the power to heal their friend.

The Most Potent Existential Challenge to Faith

What I find curious about this story is how it reflects a more universal reality about a life of faith.

I am convinced that the most deadly existential objection (as opposed to an intellectual objection) to Judeo-Christian monotheism is the existence of evil in the world, especially as evil affects the lives of innocent people. The greatest example of that challenge is the Holocaust of World War II. But it is far from the only one. The deadly cancer that kills a toddler is just as much a challenge in its own way.

Judeo-Christian monotheism has traditionally taught that God is morally good, loving, and all powerful. The reality of persistent evil seems to challenge fatally this assertion. It suggests that 1) God is not good, or 2) God is not loving, or 3) God is not all powerful, or 4) all three.

Many have abandoned trust in God because of the experience of evil and its challenge to traditional theology. How do we defend the character of God in the face of evil? This is the issue traditional theology calls theodicy. It is the fundamental problem that the characters in the Book of Job are struggling with.

If I read the Bible right, the Old Testament grounds its confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the Exodus. The New Testament grounds it confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. If God has proved faithful in the past, especially in response to injustice, God will prove faithful in the future, too.

The full confirmation of faith, however, will come only in the future, at the time that theologians call the Eschaton, that time when history comes to an end and God’s creative and redemptive plan will be fulfilled in all its depth and glory.

In the meantime, we can offer no ultimately convincing rational answer to the challenge. It persists as an intellectual challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the Bible and any religious faith based upon the Bible.

The Answer from the Whirlwind

 Interesting to me, the answer given in the Book of Job is not in the end a rational answer. It is simply an experience of the transcendental presence of God. God never explains to Job why Job has suffered the horrors he has. Instead God addresses Job out of a whirlwind. God simply presents himself to Job in his transcendental power and presence. It proves enough for Job. He repents of his obsession with finding an answer.

Now the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus do so out of a trust in Jesus’ good will and power. This is their faith, and it is their existential response to the problem of theodicy in their friend’s concrete situation. Their faith in the good will and power of Jesus is confirmed by the reality of the healing that follows.

Mark says that when the paralyzed man stood up and walked out of the house, the crowd was astounded. I find myself, on the other hand, astounded at the faith of the friends. Where did such faith come from?

In the end, where does the faith of any of us come from, if not from some inner intuitive experience of the reality of God, an experience that conveys in itself a confidence in the character of the God we trust? Our faith is neither grounded in reason nor in emotion, but in an ineffable experience that is beyond understanding.

This will never be satisfying to a rationalist, but it does acknowledge that there is a mystery about this thing we call life, a mystery that ultimately cannot be comprehended, but it can be trusted.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on this issue, I welcome your responses.

The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.