Jesus clearly believed in change. In fact, the first public word out of his mouth was later translated into the Greek imperative verb metanoeite, which literally means “change your mind” or “go beyond your mind” (see Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). Unfortunately, in the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the word into Latin as paenitentia (“repent” or “do penance”), initiating a host of moralistic connotations that have colored Christians’ understanding of the Gospels ever since. The word metanoeite referred to a primal change of mind, worldview, or way of processing and perceiving—and only by corollary about a specific change in behavior. This common misunderstanding puts the cart before the horse; we think we can change a few externals while our underlying worldview often remains narcissistic and self-referential.
This misunderstanding contributed to a puritanical, externalized, and largely static notion of the Christian message that has followed us to this day. Faith became about external requirements that could be enforced, punished, and rewarded, much more than an actual change of heart and mind, which Jesus described as something that largely happens “in secret, where your Father who sees in secret can reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18).
Jesus invariably emphasized inner motivation and intention. For example, he taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus made religion about interior change and “purity of heart” (Matthew 5:8) more than visible behaviors or rituals or anything that would have a social payoff or punishment.
Jesus didn’t focus on individual sin outside or over there, where we can point to it, punish it, and try to change it. That is too easy and mostly ineffective. Without making light of evil, he showed how to actually overcome and heal it. Sin, for Jesus, was the very act of accusing (Satan means “the accuser”). Whenever we try to expel and accuse others, and somehow leave ourselves or our group out of the equation, we end up “sinning.” We must first recognize our own complicity in evil before we can transform it. We see this pattern when Jesus himself was faced with three temptations to power (Matthew 4:1-11). Until we face our own demons, none of us are prepared to fight evil elsewhere.
Jesus thus stood in solidarity with individuals who were excluded, deemed unworthy, or demonized. Why? Because the excluded from any group always reveal the unquestioned idolatries of that group! He even partied with sinners and tax collectors, and the “pure” hated him for it (see Luke 15:2). The way Jesus tried to change people was by loving and healing them, accusing only their accusers. Why did we not notice that? His harshest words of judgment were reserved for those who perpetuated systems of inequality and oppression and who, through religion itself, thought they were sinless and untouchable. Jesus did not so much love people once they changed, but he loved people so that they could change.