Stop Repenting and Start Changing!

(a Lection Reflection on Mark 1:15)

It’s just too easy, really. All I have to do is ask you to tell me the first picture that comes to your mind when I give you a word, and I bet many of you will come up with the same picture. Here’s the word:

“Repent!”

If you pictured a fire-and-brimstone preacher, leaning over a pulpit and pointing a finger, then you’re in the majority. Many people associate the word “repent” with either angry preachers or gospel tracts, or both.

But if you associate “repent” and Jesus, you’re on the wrong track.

Yes, I know — in the King James and many subsequent translations, Jesus tells people to “repent” in Mark 1:15. And in other places. And the apostles use it too. In fact, the word translated “repent” is used 34 times in the New Testament.

But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t say “repent.” He said μετανοέω — and there’s a world of difference.

The problem is, the word “repent” comes with baggage. Walk up to almost any English-speaking person, especially one who hasn’t heard multiple sermons on the topic, and ask them what “repent” means. Dollars to donuts they will echo the first definition in Dictionary.com:

to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.

Unfortunately, this meaning really, really misses the mark. Jesus didn’t ask people to feel sorry for what they had done. Jesus didn’t ask people to feel anything. No, what Jesus asked was much, much harder:

He called each of us to change: change our perception of the world around us, change our priorities, change our view and our viewpoint, change our understanding of life completely and radically. And then he called us to act on those changes.

And to keep on changing and keep on acting on those changes, for the rest of our lives.

Instead of “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand,” we would be better to say “set your mind, your heart, and your life in a new direction, because God is moving around you and you don’t want to miss it.” And even THAT doesn’t really do it justice.

There’s a great article on Wikipedia about the meaning of μετανοέω. It’s not the best-organized thing ever, but the research on “repent” as a mega-mistranslation is very good. There are also some good alternative translations; one of my favorites is Crum’s “a change of perception with its behavioral fruit.”

For this first Sunday in Lent, we would do well to stop worrying about just feeling “sorry” and to instead really grasp the meaning of this verse.

We would do even better to actually do what it says.

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