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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

What does “do penance” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17) mean?

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What does “do penance” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17) mean?

Compared by Saint John Chrysostom – in a downright poetic manner – to the auroral light of the morning, which heralds the approach of the moment when the sun itself appears to pour forth its light upon the world just emerging from darkness, Saint John the Baptist received, according to the words of Saint Jerome, the “honorable privilege” of preaching the Kingdom of God first. Indeed, the Gospel according to Matthew presents this crucial message as being conveyed for the first time by the greatest of the prophets of the Old Testament:

“And in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. And saying: Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3: 1-2).”


Only in the next chapter, after Jesus Christ is baptized and then tempted by the devil in the wilderness at the end of the forty days of asceticism, the evangelist says that He began to preach the Gospel:

“From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).”

The sequence is not arbitrarily established. Saint John Chrysostom explains why the Savior had to first go into the wilderness to practice asceticism before being tempted: to teach us the conditions that must be fulfilled by those who want to spread the Gospel. First, they must dedicate themselves to asceticism to achieve perfect self-control with the help of divine grace.

Additionally, the moment when God Himself begins to transmit the Gospel follows the cessation of the same mission fulfilled, first, by Saint John the Baptist. Saint Jerome is the one who explains why:

“Mystically interpreted, Christ begins to preach as soon as John was delivered to prison, because when the Law ceased, the Gospel commenced.”

With that being said, in the following, we will focus our attention on this message, so short yet so important. In fact, we can say that this small sentence – “Do penance: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” – contains the essence of Christianity, the Gospel itself. That’s why is so important to give it special attention.

If we consider the absolutely unusual – from a strictly natural-human point of view – way Christians relate to death, we realize that we are dealing with an understanding of life completely opposite to the common one: how many people would prefer to die as martyrs rather than acknowledge the supposed divinity of Roman emperors?

In somewhat more sophisticated terms, we can say that the sentence in question contains a subjective dimension and an objective dimension. In other words, the beginning indicates what we, as subjects of God’s message, must do. The second part indicates the object of our actions and proposes the motivation for what we, as subjects, must do. And this object is the Kingdom of God itself, which is the supreme goal of our lives.

In terms of an experience as common nowadays as emigration, the message can be interpreted as a call to prepare ourselves to depart for a better world. I find it easy to understand this, as my Polish ancestors left a world plunged into the chaos of war to seek refuge in a country (Romania) where their lives were not in danger. Essentially, the Gospel invites us to something similar: to leave the “fallen” world, under the dominion of the devil and death, to return to the Paradise lost by Adam and Eve – the Kingdom of God.

What particularly interests me in this article concerns the subjective conditions we must fulfill to “emigrate” to Paradise: it involves what the Biblical text calls “penance” (“repentance”). We will have the opportunity to see how beneficial the original text, in this case in Greek, of the New Testament can be.

The majority of those who hear this word – “Do penance” – immediately think of a moral change in life. This is correct. In practice, the one who converts gives up dark deeds (idolatry, sorcery, theft, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc.) in order to live a Christian life. This change in life, as Saint Augustine tells us, presupposes that someone feels remorse for the wrongs they have done, prompting them to begin a new life: “Unless one repent of his former life, he cannot begin a new life.” This change in life can rightfully be considered a concrete interpretation of the Gospel word – “Do penance.” And yet, the word itself indicates something deeper than a change in life. As we will see further, it points to the very root, the core, the essence that generates the actual change in life. Let’s see what it is about.

The Greek word translated as “Do penance” (or “Repent”) is a compound verb: μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) – μετανοέω (metanoeó), formed from the preposition μετά (meta) – “beyond” – and the verb νοέω (noeó) – “to think,” “to understand” – which derives from the noun νοῦς (noûs) – “mind,” “intellect.” Simply and clearly translated, this verb means “to change one’s mind.” It actually indicates a change in the mind of the one invited to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The way the world, life, deeds – in a word, everything – is understood undergoes a profound transformation. The preposition “meta” even seems to indicate a change in the sense of lifting the mind beyond its natural limits.

If we think, for example, of articles of faith such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the Virgin Birth of the Savior, we realize that these exceed our natural capacity for understanding. Also, if we consider the absolutely unusual – from a strictly natural-human point of view – way Christians relate to death, we realize that we are dealing with an understanding of life completely opposite to the common one: how many people would prefer to die as martyrs rather than acknowledge the supposed divinity of Roman emperors? As it were, how many would die for a single word, κύριος (kurios) – “lord,” which Christians used exclusively for God, refusing to apply it to the Roman emperor?

Before actions, it is their minds that tell the future converts how wrongly they have lived, leading sinful lives.

Such deeds truly indicate a change of mind in those who embrace the faith. Moreover, if we recall the excellent definition given by St. Thomas Aquinas to faith, everything becomes crystal clear:

“The act of believing is an act of the intellect adhering to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God” (Latin: Credere est actus intellectus assentientis veritati divinae ex imperio voluntatis a Deo motae per gratiam.) [i]

This adherence of our intellect to the divine Truth revealed represents precisely the change of mind that underlies the transformation of our entire lives. That’s why all those actions related to the virtue of religion, such as prayer, meditation, lectio divina, etc., actions that involve the use of intellect in the biblical, liturgical, and sacramental context provided by the Church, are so insistently recommended by saints of all times. Because they help us acquire minds transformed by grace that will motivate us to change our lives in the direction desired by God and imperatively requested by Him:

“You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).

Even though our actions depend on our wills, our wills must be motivated, directed, and supported by well-formed minds, truly Christian minds. Like any human being, virtuous life can only move on two legs: a transformed Christian mind and a will subject to it, thus well-oriented. However, before actions, it is their minds that tell the future converts how wrongly they have lived, leading sinful lives. And this correct understanding of the mind undoubtedly depends on the Truth revealed by God, who, going before the one wandering through the dark labyrinth of the world, enlightens him, opening the way to a correct understanding of his own life, his own deeds.

From such a perspective, preserving and transmitting faithfully the sacred treasure of Christian faith is the most important mission one can have on the face of this perishable earth. And when those who have essentially received such a mission – the hierarchs of the Church – come to pervert the right faith (= orthodoxy), replacing it with their own ideas, divine intervention will not delay. If there are no sins more serious than heresy or apostasy, there is also no greater treasure than the true faith revealed to us through Moses, the Prophets, and especially through Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

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[i] Summa Theologiae, II-II, Quaestio 2, Articulus 9.

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Last modified on Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.