Glory to Jesus Christ!
My dear friends in our Lord: “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.
You might remember that these are the very words that we hear being preached by Saint John the Baptist in the previous chapter of the Gospel. These words, “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” are used both as preparation of the way of the Lord – for Saint John the Baptist was thus preparing the way of the Lord – and also as the first delcaration of our Lord Himself unto those who will hear Him.
In these short and simple words 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.
We have from our Lord a command: Do penance, and a proclamation: The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
A command – Do penance. Now, of course, the Lord does not give a command so that we might sit here and discuss it. He gives a command that it be carried out.
But in order that we might carry it out rightly, we are, in fact, called upon to look at the command using our intellect, and our will, and our heart, so that we might be guided rightly in doing penance. For penance undertaken in the wrong spirit can be detrimental to the soul. Remember the parable of the publican and the pharisee.
Do penance. In Latin, the command of the Lord is recorded as “poenitentiam agite,” meaning practically “do,” “act,” or “work penitence.” It is active and constructive, a building up again of what has been torn down and thrown apart by sin.
In the Greek, the command of the Lord is recorded as “metanoeite,” which we will see commonly – and fairly – translated into English as “repent.” But the word cuts much deeper than does the simple English word “repent.” The Greek “meta-noeite” is a compound word, meaning to change one’s mind – not in the sense of having a new opinion – but of actually changing one’s mind, one’s heart, even one’s common sense. Changing the way one thinks, the way one feels, the way one faces the world and oneself.
What our Lord is commanding, is 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 the faith, repentance is needed; in order to be successful in the path of grace, repentance is needed; in order to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, repentance is needed.
And that 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.
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 the changing of our sinful hearts for hearts healed by grace, 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.
“Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”