Beyond Guilt

“Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” (The Message)

Matthew 4:12-23

January 20, 2023, Words By: Kristy Humphreys, Image By: Sangaa Rima Roman Selia

Made Flesh

If we were to play a word association game and I said the word, “repent,” what would come to mind for you?

Two words immediately come to my mind: “sorry” and “guilty.” For most of my life, the concept of repentance has mostly involved a cocktail of guilt, shame, and confession — all under the threat of condemnation. I’m reminded of my cringey teenage self crying at the altar while rededicating my life to Christ for the 3rd or 4th time after a particularly convicting church summer camp sermon. Even as an adult, it’s tempting to measure the depth of my relationship with God by how badly I feel about my own sinfulness.

Oof. So, when I read this week’s text and Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” I have an almost pavlovian response of guilt and shame. “Jesus wants me to repent! What have I done (or not done) that I need to feel sorry for?”

Now, I have three kids, and I’m doing my best to raise them to be decent human beings with the capacity for empathy, the willingness to take responsibility for their actions, and the desire to apologize sincerely when necessary. Remorse, in appropriate doses, has a role to play in our relationships and growth as human beings. So, it’s not that I have a problem with feeling or saying “sorry,” but I also think we do the text a disservice if we believe that’s the focal point of Jesus’ call to repentance.

First of all, it helps to remember that “repent (metanoeite)” primarily means to change your mind or to change the way you see. So Jesus isn’t saying, “you need to apologize,” (although that could be an outcome). He’s inviting us into transformation — to see, think, and be different in light of the Kingdom of Heaven coming near. 

Ok, but what does the Kingdom of Heaven coming near mean? Again, I can go the guilt and shame (and maybe even “threat”) route and read that as, “My parents are coming home soon so I better clean up the mess I made in the house or I’ll be in trouble.” 

But I think that misses the mark too. I love the way N. T. Wright talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as a demonstration of God’s desire to be with His people. This is revealed in the incarnation (“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14), and culminates in Revelation as Wright says, “…not with souls going up to heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans.’”

The Kingdom of Heaven coming near is the beginning of God’s new creation where God can come and dwell with His people forever. 

In other words, the party has already started, and we are all invited whether we are attuned to that reality or not. When we start to digest the reality of the presence and coming of God’s Kingdom, it can truly transform how we think about God and how we see the world around us; and it can free us to act differently in our day-to-day lives. 

But changing the way we see can be super disruptive. I’m reminded of how Walter Brueggemann talks about transformation as a process of orientation → disorientation → re-orientation. When we learn to see the radical nature of God’s love, a God who is always moving toward us, it has huge repercussions. 

Even in this short lectionary passage we get a few glimpses. First, Jesus leaves his hometown and heads to Capernaum, a very diverse urban area filled with gentiles, instead of Jerusalem, the center of religious power. God is often active in the places we least expect.

Second, instead of recruiting religious leaders, Jesus calls on some blue-collar laborers to be his disciples. God often works through the people we least expect. 

Third, Jesus goes around teaching, spreading the good news, and healing — caring for and recognizing the full humanity of people, physically and spiritually. He draws near to those society often deems physically or morally repulsive. 

When I read this text, I see a Kingdom of Heaven that is filled with unexpected places and unlikely people. And I notice Jesus’ incarnational presence, healing people’s physical bodies in tangible ways while he does all the preaching and teaching stuff too. 

Considering all this, let’s go back to where we started. In the Message translation, Matthew 4:17 says, “Change your life. God’s Kingdom is here.” How might I respond to Jesus’ invitation to change my mind and see differently in light of God’s Kingdom?

I’d have to accept the radical nature of God’s love for me and all people. And with that, I’d have to embrace the disruptive, ongoing cycle of being disoriented and reoriented to seeing God in the places and people I least expect. That sounds kind of wonderful, kind of scary, and super uncomfortable. But I guess that’s how I feel about most of the party invitations I receive. How about you?

Dwelling Among Us

How is the transforming presence of God calling you to disorientation in your life? Where are the unexpected places and who are the unexpected people that God might be speaking to you through?

About The Author

Kristy Humphreys