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Cleaning Up the Messy House

For Sunday September 28, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 17:1–7 or Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32
           Psalm 78:1–4, 12 –16 or Psalm 25:1–9
           Philippians 2:1–13
           Matthew 21:23–32

Ezekiel, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311); Tempera on wood.
Ezekiel, by Duccio
di Buoninsegna (1308-1311);
Tempera on wood.

           "Repent and live!" thunders Ezekiel in the Old Testament reading for this week (Ezekiel 18:32). In a culture that has forgotten how to blush, and that counsels us to "never apologize and never explain," his words sound archaic and dour. Isn't his advice even psycho-therapeutically harmful? Why such self-hatred?

           Ezekiel's message is not mere religious rhetoric of the "old" testament, as if it deserved a wink and a knowing smile. "Repentance" is not some linguistic anachronism that we might delete from our moral lexicon. In the Gospel for this week Jesus preaches an identical message: "Repent and believe" (Matthew 21:32). In fact, on the first page of Mark's Gospel, in his very first recorded words, Jesus proclaims, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).

           For those who want to live Christianly, repentance is central to life rather than peripheral. It's essential rather than dispensable, obligatory and not optional. And contrary to modern misconceptions, when done well, repentance is entirely life-giving rather than death-dealing. Repentance is a movement toward health and wholeness rather than a descent into repression and self-recrimination.

           Repentance best takes place in a church community, but it is ultimately a personal act rather than an ecclesiastical ritual. The Protestant Reformers insisted on this point as they tried to recover the explosive power of the Gospel story that they believed hand been encrusted with 1500 years of arbitrary church authority and tendentious traditions. The very first of Martin Luther's 95 theses reads, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'repent,' He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

           Luther was attacking the medieval sacramental system of "penance," and especially the buying and selling of indulgences, a sort of bribe paid to the church which purported to reduce one's penalty for sin. Appealing to the original Greek of the New Testament, Luther insisted that Jesus did not prescribe a complicated ritual that required the believer to confess to a priest, purchase an indulgence, repeat so many Hail Marys, and so forth, as suggested by Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible in the fifth century that held sway in the Western church for a full 1,000 years (poenitentiam agite, "do penance"). Rather, in a way unmediated by rules, regulations, and formulas, we simply if also radically "repent" before God Himself (Greek, metanoia).

The Vision of Ezekiel, by Raphael (1518); Oil on panel.
The Vision of Ezekiel,
by Raphael (1518); Oil on panel.

           Although repentance might have its public and communal dimensions, genuine repentance thus constitutes a deeply personal and individually unique act before both God and my neighbor. If you are lucky, others might help you, but no one can repent for another; you can only repent for yourself. In this sense repentance can be quite simple, as observed by the Syrian abbot John Climacus (c. 525–605) in his The Ladder of Divine Ascent : "Let your prayer be very simple. For the tax collector and the prodigal son just one word was enough to reconcile them to God."

           A single word might do, but genuine repentance is also a life-long style of life, which is to say that it is a complex process that acknowledges the ambiguity of our fallen human condition. Since our human condition will never know perfection this side of heaven, we will never know a time when we do not need repentance as our friend. After I had been married a number of years, my wife and I decided to re-take some diagnostic tests that we had taken in pre-marital counseling. I wanted to see if and how we had changed. The answer, at least according to the tests: not much. When I asked my psychologist friend about my meager "progress" and prospects for genuine change, based upon his years of clinical experience, Arden only shrugged, "well, for most people change is complex, slow and incremental." With Luther, then, we can say that repentance requires our entire life, throughout our life.

           In the Gospel for this week, Jesus offended his listeners when he observed that decidedly immoral people like prostitutes and tax-collectors understood repentance better than religiously righteous people. He explained that the religiously righteous wrongly, and to their peril, believe that they are better than they really are; they imagine that they do not need to repent. "Repent of what? I'm as good as the next guy." Moral outcasts have no such illusions or compulsions, nor the need to hew to social conventions that protect us; they know how bad off they are.

           I learned this lesson the hard way when a therapist once informed me that my test scores indicated that I scored way high on the test's built-in "fudge factor" that smokes out answer patterns that are too good to be true. "No," said the therapist, "you are not as good as your answers insinuate, nor will this test let you fake it. In fact, your fudge factor is way beyond the standard deviation."

           Jesus further observed that children are also often better at admitting their faults and failures than adults. My wife had a second-grader who once drew a picture of a fierce rhinoceros with a disturbing and unvarnished admission as a caption: "I'm as angry as a rhino!"

Ezekiel the Prophet, by Michaelangelo, the Sistine Chapel.
Ezekiel the Prophet, by Michaelangelo,
the Sistine Chapel.

           Similarly, in her book Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes about a little boy who wrote a poem called "The Monster Who Was Sorry." In the poem the boy explodes about how he hated it when his father yelled at him. In anger he threw his sister down the stairs, wrecked his room, then destroyed an entire town. His poem concludes: "Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, 'I shouldn't have done all that.'"

           Commenting on the boy's poem, Norris writes, "'My messy house' says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in a fourth century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell."

           In repentance, Ezekiel writes, we move beyond mere regret, embarrassment or shame. In true repentance I implore God to rid me of "all the offenses I have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit" (18:31). Through the enabling power of divine grace, we seek a change of mind and heart leading to changed actions. In the words of Paul's epistle for this week, that means that we must "work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13).

For further reflection:

* Can you think of other metaphors for repentance (eg, Norris and the "messy room") that admit one's fault but also suggest a way forward?
* What common misunderstandings about repentance perpetuated by church or secular culture can you identify?
* Meditate upon the words of the Psalmist for this week from Psalm 25: "Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord. . . . For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great."
* A favorite prayer from Arsenios (5th century): "My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start.

Image credits: (1) the Web Gallery of Art; (2); and (3) Columbia University.