Walking in the Way sometimes means turning around... the meaning of repentance
SJF • Proper 21a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son answered, I will not; but later he changed his mind and went.
Starting this coming Friday evening, our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith will observe the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the synagogues they will read the Book of Jonah, a story of repentance both by the ones preached to, the Ninevites, and the preacher, Jonah himself. The Jews call this reading Ha Teshuvah, and it means “The Turning Around.” It can also be translated as The Repentance. But that’s where the problem comes in.
When we hear the word repentance we tend to think in terms of how we feel. We focus on how sorry we are about something we’ve done, how guilty or uncomfortable we feel. But turning around isn’t about feeling; it’s about doing. It is not a state of mind, or disposition of the emotions. Rather it is an act of the will, a movement of soul and body.
Everyone knows you cannot right a wrong just by feeling sorry about it! Even an accidental, unintentional wrong, like bumping into someone, requires at the very least an apology. And if that bump is rather more solid, such as a bump of an automobile, recompense for damages will be in order. It is not enough simply to feel sorry about wrongdoing, regardless of intention — you actually have to do something. You have to act, you have to move.
Think for a moment about the important part physical movement plays in the heart of the Jewish people: start with Abraham’s long pilgrimage from the land of Ur of the Chaldees, then the journey to Egypt in the days of Joseph, then that long Exodus back to the promised land, that forty-year-long wandering in the wilderness, from which we’ve been hearing highlights; then exile to Babylon, followed by another return to the land of promise.
And you know the story didn’t end there. After the time of Christ, after the times described in our New Testament, the Romans finally lost their patience with the numerous rebellions of the Zealot revolutionaries, and they burned down the Temple once again, sending the people into exile, scattered to the four winds. The Zionist movement of the nineteenth century reawakened the urge in Jewish hearts to return; and finally, after the horrors of the Holocaust, led to founding of the nation of Israel, and you need only look to today’s headlines to see how jealously that land is guarded against any critics and all enemies. And every Passover Seder still ends with that prayer, “Shanah haba b’Yerushalayim — Next year, in Jerusalem” so strong is the call in the Jewish heart to return home.
Over literally thousands of years, this idea of returning, turning back, returning to the land of promise from the many lands of exile, became a symbol for departure from the way of sin, for returning to the way of righteousness and peace. Movement, then, is an intrinsic part of the way the Jewish people have understood and understand themselves. Movement is embedded in every Jewish tradition — almost as much as food! — and that includes the Jewish Law itself.
The Jewish Law isn’t just about rules you obey, it is about directions that you follow, it is a Way in which you walk. Sin is described not just as doing bad things, but as straying from the path, or losing one’s way. And righteousness is not about sitting still — to live the righteous life you have to get up and go!
Jesus grew up with this understanding of the law and righteousness, and it is at the heart of his teaching. Righteousness, Jesus teaches us, does not lie in promises, but in performance. It isn’t enough just to collect brochures for the righteousness cruise; you’ve got to get on board the boat and take the journey. You can’t just talk the talk — you’ve got to walk the walk.
And so it is that repentance — returning to the right path when you have wandered astray — is not simply a matter of a change of heart or of mind. Repentance, turning around, goes beyond the change of heart and mind to include a change of direction. If sin is heading the wrong way, then salvation lies in heeding the moral compass, turning around, and heading back towards God, pleading to God, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.”
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Jesus tells a short parable today about two brothers: and the key to the parable lies in that brother who changes his mind and turns back to the task that he had at first rejected. But the fawning subservience of the second son does nothing to fulfill the father’s will. He may at most have gained his father’s favor for a moment, but, as the old saying goes, ‘Wait ‘til your father gets home’ — and finds the work undone and that quick promise broken. He will not be so quick to trust that son the next time he makes a promise to do as he is told!
The other son, after that first refusal, comes to his senses, however. He realizes he’s offended his father by his hasty refusal to do as he was told. But he doesn’t just feel bad and dread the next encounter with dear old Dad. He pulls himself together and not only changes his mind — he goes! And it is only in the actual turning and going, in spite of his earlier denial, that this first son accomplishes his father’s will.
Jesus aimed this parable at those priests and elders who came to him and challenged him. They had a high respect for the Law and many interpretations of it. They knew it backwards and forwards; but they had built what they themselves called “a fence around the Law.” And in the process, they made the Law harder to follow; they made it like a beautiful park fenced off so that it was hard to find a way in or through it. In their hands God’s Law became a monument, rather than a path to walk upon. As Jesus would say to the Pharisees on another occasion, “You do not enter yourselves but you prevent others from entering.”
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You know, there’s a restaurant in Georgia called the Church of God Grill. You probably wonder how it got that name! Well, it started out as a little storefront church — you know the kind I mean; there are dozens of them in every big city. The people of this particular little church would cook up and sell chicken dinners every Sunday after their worship service, in order to raise funds — much like many parishes do. But before long they found that more people were interested in the chicken than were interested in the worship, so they shortened the church service. Eventually the demand for the chicken dinners became so great that there was no time for worship at all, so they just closed the church and opened the restaurant, but kept the name, the Church of God Grill.
A bit closer to home — closer to me anyway, and to Mark [Collins] who studied there and served here as his field placement; and Sahra Harding who also served here and studied at General Seminary — the General Seminary is going through some tough times right now. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the faculty have gone on strike. It’s a sad story; and I don’t know the details — I just heard about it yesterday.
But I do remember something from my time at the Seminary almost twenty years ago that reminds me of that Church of God Grill. I was having lunch one day in the cafeteria — which of course can’t be called a cafeteria in a seminary; it has to be called “a refectory” — but I’m having lunch, and at the table with me was a member of the administration. She was in charge of financial aid to students — scholarships and grants, which believe me you need when you are going to seminary — and we were just talking about the state of things at the seminary, and she said, “You know, the real problem with the seminary is: we end up spending more on each seminarian than we take in, in tuition and fees. If we could just get rid of all the students we could really have a great school!” The sad thing is she was serious.
That’s missing the point. And how often do people miss the very important points about what things are for — what they are meant to be. How often do they become an institution that is preserved long after the purposes for which the institution was meant are no longer being served? How do you keep that flame alive? Keep that fire of knowing what it is you are for and what it is you are meant to do? what you are called to do? It’s hard to be constantly renewed, constantly aware of the needs that you can serve if you will keep true to the cause for which you were started in the first place. But like that Church of God Grill, and like some people in the seminary, it seems they lose track and become focused on the thing rather than what the thing is for.
And so the same kind of thing happened with the scribes and the elders, with the priests and the Pharisees — at least some of them. They got so caught up with protecting the Law as a thing that they forgot that it was not meant for lip-service, but for action. It was a Way in which they were called to walk, not a thing they were required to admire and study and argue about, but to live. Jesus reminds them that the Law is something living only when you live it. It is not a piece of property to fence about, but a path to be walked; a freeway, not a barricade; a door to enter the kingdom, not a door to be locked and guarded. And so it was that the prostitutes and tax collectors who simply turned around and followed John the Baptist were responding to the spirit of the Law, and walking in God’s Way, while the self-righteous scribes, the elders, the priests who thought that keeping the law meant keeping it fenced in and protecting it, were instead fencing themselves out of the kingdom.
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So it was, and so it has always been. There will always be those who think God needs to be protected, that righteousness is about appearing righteous, saying the right words, rather than walking the path that righteousness requires. There are many who are satisfied with a religion that looks good, a religion that feels good, a religion that sounds good, but which accomplishes little of God’s will, who are big on promise but small on fulfillment, who dress the right way and say the right things, who sit in Moses’ seat, but fail in those important tasks that require them to stand up and get to work — visiting the sick and the prisoner, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger.
This is, sisters and brothers, a challenge to all of us. Let us not become the Church of God Grill. Let us receive strength and power from God not merely to honor him with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to his service, and walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days.+