What a way to begin a speech!
Jesus is not your average public speaker. Most acclaimed orators at a major convention begin their presentation with a series of polite opening remarks. It is customary to honor visiting dignitaries, welcome the crowd, and offer glowing compliments about the organization or the host city, all to win the attention and approval of the audience.
Jesus could have begun, “Most reverend rabbis” or “Good people of Capernaum.” He might have said something like, “How wonderful that we have gathered together here on this gorgeous day along the scenic shores of the Sea of Galilee.” Jesus would have no idle chatter. He cut straight to the chase. The first word of his preaching was, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), a brave and bold command. What a first impression! It might not have won the crowd’s approval, but they perked up and took notice.
Jesus was never one for being politically correct. He was no reed swaying in the wind. He was a prophet, the Prophet, and he embodied the truth. A prophet can see laxity, corruption, unfaithfulness, and evildoing, and refuses to look the other way. There is no wiggle room when it comes to the truth, goodness, and holiness. The bar must never be lowered. The people and their leaders had strayed. Their plight was dismal. Their situation was urgent. A prophet does not mince words. Jesus did not want the people to like him. He wanted to save them. Out of deep love and sincere concern for their spiritual welfare, his first word was audacious and unapologetic: “Repent.”
Repent is not a polite, soft invitation. It is judgmental, challenging, and confrontational. It says, “You are in a bad place” and “You are headed in the wrong direction.” It is a reprimand, a scolding. It is the sort of comment that would raise the ire of his listeners. They would have likely retorted, “Get lost!” “Mind your own business!” Jesus was not about to leave, and their wellbeing was his first order of business.
Jesus knew that his listeners, all sinners, would be offended. That is why he would later say, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Mt 11:6). His listeners would need to get past their initial anger, denial, defensiveness, and stubbornness. An honest self-appraisal would reveal that Jesus was right, that sin was present, and that change was desperately needed, but change does not come easily. Sinners regularly prefer self-destructive sinful behavior to healthy, wholesome behavior. Jesus’ call to repent is a call to change.
Spiritual directors and counselors have a saying, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” If we keep doing the same old things the same old ways, we will get the same old results. Each person is a sinner, both those in Jesus’ original audience and each of us today. If we are sinners, something has to change. We must repent or our sins will persist. Without change, there can be no increase in righteousness or growth in holiness.