My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ; glory forever!
“Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the words with which we conclude today’s Gospel reading. And it is with these profound and holy words, that our Lord begins his public preaching to a fallen world.
Notice, too, that these are the very words that we hear being preached by our Lord’s Prophet and Forerunner, John the Baptist, as we read in the previous chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. These words, “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” are used both as preparation of the way of the Lord, and as the first delcaration of our Lord unto those who will hear Him.
In these short and simple we find the preface of the Good News, the Gospel, also an expression of its spirit, and finally a summation of the mission which is given to all who have received the Gospel.
And, once again I have to borrow the phrase from Saint Paul in saying that “time would fail” us were we to delve into all the possible considerations which are presented to us in just these few words of our Lord. Really, the applicability of these few simple words is both universal and also so profound that by themselves they provide a plan and a rule of life for the Christian, a sure guide to living the Christian life.
“Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
We have from our Lord a command: Do penance, and a proclamation: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. So today, so that we may be brief, let us simply take a cursory look at both and place them in our intellects, our wills, and our hearts.
Our Lord begins with “Do penance!” And this phrase is alternately translated as “Repent!” And there are those who have spent immense amounts of time in explaining why one or the other translation is preferable, and it is an interesting topic, without doubt.
But what is more important to us is that we do what our Lord says. This is a command – and our Lord does not give a command that the command be thought about, considered… He gives a command that it be carried out. So the consideration of what our Lord is here saying is likewise important, as we want genuinely to carry out what the Lord commands. And the varying renderings and shades of meaning which are found – even – in the ancient languages are, I would venture to say, no accident. They are complementary to each other, and provide a fuller view of just what it is that our Lord is calling us to undertake.
“Do penance.” “Repent.” In the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome – and even in the majority of the pre-Vulgate Latin manuscripts – we read “Paenitentiam agite,” which is very fairly translated into English as “Do penance.”
We have also a few ancient manuscripts which render our Lord’s command as “Paenitemini,” which is fairly accurately translated as “repent.” The same also goes for the Slavonic which you will have heard in today’s Gospel : pokaítes’, repent you all.
But we must look at this command not solely with our intellect, nor even with our will, but with our hearts to understand what is required of us.
For in the Greek, the command of the Lord is given as “metanoeite,” which is commonly – and fairly – translated into English as “repent.” But the word cuts much deeper than does the simple English word “repent.” The Greek “metanoeite” is a compound word, meaning to change one’s mind, one’s heart, even one’s common sense.
Some of you may have heard me speak before on what is called the “nous,” or you hear in the Liturgy when we speak of the eternal sacrifice offered on God’s most heavenly and noetic (noetic coming from the word nous) altar. The nous is likened to one’s spiritual sense, one’s spiritual mind.
There is not enough time now to speak much of it, so let us take note that our Lord here is not commanding us simply to “repent,” as in feeling bad that we have sinned. He is not simply asking us to “do penance,” as in fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Those things are both good, and even necessary, don’t get me wrong there. But they are not enough.
What our Lord is announcing, commanding, is a metanoia – a radical change of our way of thinking, of viewing all things, of feeling, of sensing, of understanding, of loving. That all of these things must be changed – made anew by grace, by the action of the Holy Spirit. This is repentance. This is doing penance. By our Lord’s own command, in order to believe in our Him repentance is needed; in order to remain in this salvific faith, repentance is needed; in order to be successful in this path, repentance is needed; in order to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, repentance is needed.
And this brings us to the declaration that our Lord makes: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
And isn’t this exactly the message that we had heard from Saint John the Baptist, our Lord’s Forerunner? Saint John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, indeed summed up the entirety of the Old Testament with his prophecy of the coming of the Kindgom of Heaven.
And now, here is our Lord, proclaiming the Kingdom – not only as a factual declaration, but also as the motivation for our repentance. Our Lord says: Do penance, for the Kindgom of Heaven is at hand.
Now, if we were strictly to translate this statement of our Lord, we would look and we would find that in the Latin, the word “appropinquavit” is used in regard to the Kingdom, and in Greek we find, “íngiken.” Now, both of these are verbs, not merely adjectives, and they are verbs in the perfect tense.
That is important to note, because it means that our Lord is not merely describing where the Kingdom of Heaven is, but He is rather stating what the Kingdom of Heaven does – or rather what it HAS done. Strictly translated, our Lord says: Do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven “has come close,” it “has drawn near.”
It is not merely that it “is” near, but rather the Kingdom itself has moved so as to be near to us. And this is only right for our Lord to say, for He is Himself the Door to the Kingdom. And by His grace He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Truly the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.
But secondly, the English translation itself is very, very apt. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It is at hand – it is not simply something nebulously hanging about. It is not something that we can not grasp.
Rather, the opposite. It is at hand – at our hand – look at your own hand. The Kingdom of Heaven is that close. We are able to reach out, to grasp it, to hold it, to cling to the very Kingdom of Heaven.
It is “at hand.”
And how do we reach out? How do we take hold of the Kingdom? By penance. By repentance. By metanoia – the changing of our sinful hearts for clean hearts, created in us by the power and grace of God, communicated to us through the sacred mysteries of the Church. This is how we grasp the Kingdom. This is how we enter that Kindgom drawn close to us in the very Person of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.