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μετανοεῖτε· Dimensions of Conversion in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’

The words of the Matthean Jesus “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Mt. 4.17) are considered as the quintessence of his preaching. Although the imperative “μετανοεῖτε·” “precedes the preaching of the Matthean Jesus and dominates it” (Luz 1992), a large part of modern literature concentrates on the interpretation of “βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν” (e.g. Ratzinger 2007). As the somewhat misleading standard translation “Repent” suggests, the meaning of “μετανοεῖτε·” as a “one-time … conversion preceding baptism and Christian life” (Luz 1992) seems to be widely accepted and unquestioned. How the Matthean Jesus himself understood his demand is rarely asked.

Hence, the talk tries to work out Jesus’ own understanding of conversion from the perspective of his most important preaching “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5-7). The thesis is that this Sermon neither precedes nor succeeds the demanded conversion, but is a presentation of conversion itself. To explain and prove this thesis I will work out the systematic line of thinking in the core passages of the Sermon (Mt. 5.17-7.12) with a distinctively philosophical approach (“analytic-hermeneutic method”, Zehnpfennig 2010).

The talk will portray, how Jesus conducts a conversion of three connected dimensions of a human being. He performs the conversion in relation to others from reciprocity to universal love (Mt. 5.17-48), the conversion in relation to God from an instrument to the purpose of self-preservation (Mt. 6.1-34) and the conversion in relation to oneself from the claim to be the last moral standard to the self-examination according to the standard of God (7.1-12).

Thus, conversion seems not to be a one-time, irrational act of faith but a gradual, rational process of transformation of the entire personality from self-referentiality to self-transcendence. From this perspective, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of heaven can also be understood better.