How do you imagine the Kingdom? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Matthew 4:12-23, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

In our Gospel today, we hear Jesus preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The Greek word translated as “repent,” metanoeite, comes from meta (beyond) and nous (mind). Literally, metanoeitemeans “to go beyond the mind.” More elegantly, it can be rendered “to go beyond a certain way of thinking.” Since a certain way of thinking comes with a certain way of behaving, we can see how metanoeite became “repent,” to change one’s ways for the better.

But repentance is often limited to just ceasing to do evil and avoiding sin. This understanding cripples metanoeite. From a hobbled interpretation, how can we make metanoeite skip and jump again?

Maybe we can push our translation of metanoeite and take it as a command to go beyond the usual way of seeing, or to go deeper than what is at the surface, or maybe even to expand our minds. Instead of just hearing Jesus urge us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” can we hear him say, “Rev up your imaginations, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?

Faith needs imagination. We need imagination to see that when the priest consecrates the bread and the wine, we are somehow able to be with Jesus not just at the Last Supper but at an Eternal Supper where he is host and what he serves is his very self. We need imagination when we look at the stained glass windows depicting saints to see that at Mass, the whole heavenly court joins us in celebration – and the whole world, too, not just the people physically present at that hour. We need imagination to see in the sanctuary not just a table on which food and drink are prepared but an altar of sacrifice where God’s offering on Calvary is given to us again… and again.

I have heard young people today use the expression “mind-blown.” This can describe something shockingly stupid or something incredibly amazing. I think metanoeite must have the flavor of the latter. Metanoeite means blowing up our mental categories so that we can open ourselves up to God’s surprises. And again, to be pleasantly surprised by God, we need imagination.

The imagination needed here is not just about wild fantasies, but a way of seeing that is not the way the world sees. It is an imagination that can see how it is the poor and the meek who are blessed. It is an imagination that can see how one who loses his or her life actually saves it. It is an imagination that can see how even in the midst of trials and tribulation, God is with us. It is an imagination that can see how when we do not receive what we pray for, God has something much, much better in mind.

What else can metanoeite mean?

A classmate of mine in theology once shared about the difficulty he had dealing with an elderly man who loved serving at Mass. Because the number of people attending their daily 6:00 am Eucharist was quite small, the newly-installed parish priest declared that there was no more need for the bell to be rung during consecration. My classmate was in charge of those who volunteered to serve at Mass, and so he relayed the parish priest’s instructions to them. All complied except for the elderly man. My classmate tried to explain to him that the bell was not really essential, that it had its use in the past when the congregation could not see what the priest was doing and so they needed signals like bells to cue them about what was happening. With only a handful of people at Mass who all were within a few feet of the altar, the ringing of the bell was superfluous and maybe even distracting. But still, the elderly man continued to ring the bell.

As my classmate and I talked about this man, we just rolled our eyes and shook our heads. Was he so narrow-minded that he believed if the bell was not rung, the Mass would not be valid? We both agreed that this man needed to expand his imagination and his understanding of the Mass, and we again rolled our eyes and shook our heads.

A few weeks later, my classmate pulled me aside and told me we were wrong. He had tried talking to the man again, but this time my classmate also tried to listen. My classmate found out that when the old man was still a young boy, he did not learn as fast as his peers. This presented a major problem when he was being prepared for his First Communion. He just could not keep up with the lessons. The catechists gave up on him, but his parish priest did not. The priest told him, “Don’t worry. Even if you don’t know all the responses, I will still give you First Communion. In fact, I will even make you an altar server. All you need to know is when to ring the bell.”

It was not the elderly man who was narrow-minded. It was my classmate and I. We only saw clear-cut instructions about bell-ringing, but the elderly man, whenever he rang the bell, saw the kind old parish priest who did not withhold the Eucharist from him, who allowed him to come closer to the altar, who embodied the God who wants to give himself to all and who desires that all draw closer to him.

Maybe this is the even deeper meaning of metanoeite – to go beyond just my way of seeing things, to imagine how it must be to see through another person’s eyes. And maybe, when we are able to do this, we will see that the kingdom of heaven is really at hand.

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