As I ponder Matthew 3:1-12 as part of this week’s lectionary, I can’t help but think of a fascinating bit of NT (New Testament) insight from NT (Nicholas Thomas) Wright.
The passage is about the ministry of John the Baptist. We all know what that was about, right? Eating Locusts and honey, wearing camel’s hair, running around the desert telling people to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2)
The way most American Christians (or is it Christian Americans?) interpret this phrase – repent means to make some radical and spiritual decision to be sorry for sins and turn from them.
While there is validity in this, Wright points out that Josephus used the “repent and follow me” phrase in a very secular context.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” then, is not a spiritual reference, but a physical, “real-world” one. Look, for instance, at what Luke has John telling people to do to show their repentance:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
The evidence of repentance, at least repentance as John the Baptist taught it, was generous, honest behavior. There is no mention of daily prayer, bible study, or joining a church.
Are these things – prayer, bible study, and church membership valid? Yes; even essential. But these are not the primary evidence that repentance has taken place.