Repentance for the kingdom (Matt 4)

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:13). The first public utterance of Jesus, in the book of origins which we know as the Gospel according to Matthew, is a word-for-word repetition of the signal proclamation by John the baptiser: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:1-2).

This passage is set as part of the Gospel for this coming Sunday. It is an important passage in the book of origins, for it sets out two key elements in the declaration made by Jesus, which are central to understanding the purpose of of Jesus, as Matthew understands it.

The first element, repentance, is proclaimed by John and repeated by Jesus. The Greek word metanoia, which translated as “repentance”, is a powerful word; it refers to a complete and wholesale “change of mind”, a deeply permeating and thoroughgoing change of how one lives. It is no mere trifle; it is a serious, and challenging, concept.

John first asserts the need for such a thoroughgoing transformation, when he instructs the Pharisees and the Sadducees to bear fruit worthy of repentance (3:8). This theme is repeated by Jesus in various teachings: you will know them by their fruits (7:15-20), the tree is known by its fruit (12:33-37), and the warnings given to the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (11:20-24).

In the teachings of Jesus included in this Gospel, Jesus provides clear and detailed instructions as to what “fruit” is entailed in this way of living, such as: go beyond what the Law says, to seek perfection (5:21-48); do not place stumbling blocks in another’s way (18:6-9); and give your possessions to the poor if you wish to be perfect (19:21-30). Repentance is serious and demanding.

The second element is the kingdom of heaven—also proclaimed by John (3:8) and then regularly included in the teachings and parables of Jesus. In Matthew’s understanding, the kingdom is closely linked with righteousness 5:10, 20; 6:33; 21:31-32; 25:46).

Such righteousness requires deep and abiding repentance—that change of mind, heart, and the whole being, that comes from entering into covenant relationship with God, and following the way of Jesus. (And dikaiosune, the Greek word usually translated as righteousness, can equally be translated as justice, which, of course, gives a different flavour to our understanding when we read that English rendering.)

The kingdom is both God’s gift to those who are righteous, or just, and the realm where God’s righteousness, or justice, will be the norm. There is a marvellous treasury of parables about the kingdom found in Matt 13, some additional parables in Matt 20 and 22, and then three final and powerful parables in Matt 25. They signify that the kingdom includes both a gift (it the place where God’s justice, or righteousness, is freely evident), and a demand (it is the way that God requires righteous lives, or just lifestyles, from human beings).

Often the parable is told with a single focus point: the kingdom of heaven is like … (hidden treasure, or fine pearls, or a mustard seed). Some parables are more developed, involving a series of characters, recounting a developing storyline. Each parable, nevertheless, drives towards a clear central point, explaining the nature of the kingdom that is proclaimed by Jesus, as gift and demand.

Jesus teaches that entry into the kingdom is premised on faithful service (7:21-23); it is those who produce the fruits of the kingdom who will share in this realm (21:43). Alongside Jews who are faithful followers of Jesus, the kingdom will include those from beyond Israel—a Gentile centurion (8:10,13) and a Canaanite woman (15:28) are specifically commended. They are welcomed because of their faith, which has been made evident in the way they respond to Jesus—they place their complete trust in him. (We are not told that they become followers of Jesus; they simply trust him in that moment of encounter.)

The passage set for this Sunday thus serves as an introduction to key themes that are expounded by Jesus throughout his teaching ministry, as well as an overview of key elements that will recur throughout the year, as excerpts from this Gospel appear in the lectionary week by week.

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The icon shown is a 19th century representation of “the kingdom of heaven”, from Petersburg.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

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See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.