Pastor Dale E. Austin Matthew 4:12-23
Sometimes a single word can change the meaning or intent of a statement completely.
Our Book of Discipline is crafted in such a way. For instance, it states that there shall be an organized unit of United Methodist Women in each congregation. . . . but there may be an organized unit of United Methodist Men. It’s been that way for years, and no one can really explain why the one phrase is compulsory while the other is permissive. Tradition!
When studying the scriptures we sometimes need to be alert to the subtle – or not-so-subtle – difference which a single word can make. Often it hinges on the tense of a verb. But because it’s a single word, we just gloss over it without even recognizing it.
A few years back I heard someone trying to make a case for her belief that when we become Christians, we are no longer sinners. Her premise, of course, was that “saints” and “sinners” are mutually exclusive categories, which they aren’t. When I asked about Paul’s famous line in his letter to Timothy, she insisted that he was speaking in the past tense. Well, he isn’t. The line is in reference to sinners, and Paul adds the comment “of which I am the foremost”. She can try to cast his comment in the past tense, but it won’t work.
There’s a similar speed bump in today’s passage. As Jesus comes on the scene, Matthew tells us of his message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s a subtle nuance in the phrasing, but he lets us know in no uncertain terms that the kingdom of heaven does not result from the repentance of sinners, but rather leads us to such repentance.
Jesus doesn’t say to repent so that the kingdom might come near.
Rather, he announces that the kingdom has already broken in upon human existence, and its presence calls us to repentance. Very often, we don’t hear that message. What we hear is that if the kingdom is to come among us, we must first repent and accept the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s not what Jesus is saying.
The call of Jesus’ first disciples is a good example. He doesn’t ask them to turn their lives around in order to be fit to follow him. Instead, he calls them as they are. . .where they are. . .in the middle of their work. . .and he invites them to follow him. In that moment, heaven’s kingdom has broken into their lives and enveloped them. They drop whatever it is that they’re doing, and they go with him – immediately.
We often speak of God’s kingdom as a future goal. If we can get the world to turn itself around and follow Christ, then God’s kingdom will come. In Jesus’ mind, that kingdom is already here. It doesn’t come about through the actions of humanity as we turn our lives away from greed and selfishness and toward giving and sacrifice. Jesus tells us that such turning or changing of our ways happens because that kingdom has found its way into our lives, because God has already taken the initiative by sending us his Son. Repentance is a sign that we recognize that his kingdom is already breaking in upon us. It has already entered our world and our lives. And it’s a good thing. Something good, something wonderful is making its way into our lives.
One little word changes everything.
“The kingdom has come” – as opposed to “the kingdom will come”.
And yet, how many times have we read this passage hearing, “Repent, so that the kingdom may come near”? We don’t think about it; we don’t realize the difference in meaning or nuance. We just read it and we hear what we’ve thought was being said all of our lives.
But it’s not what Jesus says.
He invites us to follow him into a kingdom which has already broken into our midst, a kingdom of renewed life and peace. And like those first disciples, he doesn’t wait for us to turn our lives around. He calls to us in the midst of our everyday lives, inviting us to follow him, and in doing so, to find the renewed life which he offers – the life which comes to us because his kingdom has already broken in upon us.