Turning the Heart to Come ‘Round Right

Repentance is one of the most difficult concepts in all of the religious world.  This notion of changing, turning away from past sins and indiscretions, and correcting one’s path is easier said than done.  Consider the case of one king of Israel, that being the inimitable David.  Described as a man after God’s own heart, David had his reckless, prideful side, and he exercised it on several occasions.

Perhaps the most scandalous of David’s exploits was his infamous affair with Bathsheba.  As the story unfolds,   in II Samuel 11, David saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as she was bathing, and decided he must have her.  He had her brought to the palace and, as powerful men are wont to do, had his way with her.  She became pregnant, and in order to cover his feckless behavior, he called her husband back from battle to sleep with her, but Uriah’s sense of honor and duty did not permit him to enjoy himself while his comrades were fighting and dying.  David even stooped to getting him drunk, but Uriah still didn’t cooperate.  David had to save face, so he wrote a letter to his army’s commander, Joab, and told Joab to put Uriah in the thickest fighting, then withdraw and allow Uriah to die.  The ultimate insult to the brave and honorable Uriah was that he had to carry his own death warrant to the general.  The plan went well.  Uriah died, but so did a number of other valiant men, all to serve the King’s misplaced sense of propriety.

In II Samuel 12, Nathan the prophet visited David and spun for him the allegory of the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb.  David was rightly indignant over the injustice, and while he noted that the perpetrator deserved to die, he would at least be required to repay the loss four-fold.  It would have been interesting to see David’s expression when the prophet’s stratagem was revealed with the four words, “You are the man.”  Surprise, confusion, guilt, regret.  They all likely played across his face in rapid succession.

David’s remorse is recounted in Psalm 51.  It is a powerful expression of sorrow.  He begs for mercy, and confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (v. 4).  Now, I think I would have to differ with David on that count.  Far be it from me to judge, but I think David missed a few victims of his selfish sin: Bathsheba, Uriah, the valiant men that died to cover David’s wanton indiscretion, even the child of David’s illegitimate union with Bathsheba—these are only the obvious ones that he failed to acknowledge.

But while David’s penitence was narrowly focused, his grief and regret were genuine enough.  He prays for mercy (v.1.), washing (vv.2, 7), blotting away of his sins (v. 9), (re)creation of a clean heart and a renewal of a right spirit (v. 10), and a restoration of the joy God’s salvation (v. 12).  Despite his sins recounted here, as well as his prideful, unauthorized transport of the Ark of the Covenant, and other violations of God’s will, he was a man who understood the need for repentance, and that brought him back into God’s favor.  He remained a man after God’s own heart.

Repentance stands as an important theme throughout both Testaments.  The prophets preached repentance to the erring nation of Israel, whose errant behavior led them to captivity.  Jonah preached repentance to the city of Nineveh.  Repentance was the central theme of John’s message as he prepared the way for Jesus.  Jesus then took up the message and preached repentance as a prerequisite to entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Luke seems to have placed a fine point on the concept of repentance by recounting the atrocity Pilate had wrought on the Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices, as well as the 18 people who died in a tower collapse at Siloam (Luke 13).  In each case, he asked if those unfortunates had been any worse than the general populace, with the not so subtle intimation that they were not.  Without repentance, his listeners’ fates would be equally as tragic.

Luke also tells some very significant stories and relates some parables and teaching not found in other gospels.  In Chapter 7, he told the story of Jesus’s invitation to dine with a Pharisee.  He was not welcomed as convention of the day and culture would require.  In fact, it appears the invitation may have been little more than an inspection and an inquisition of sorts.  At any rate, a sinful woman—likely a prostitute—heard that Jesus was in the Pharisee’s household, invited herself in, and proceeded to perform one of the most menial and humble of tasks: she washed his still dusty feet with her own tears, dried them with her hair, and broke open an alabaster bottle of costly ointment to anoint his feet.  The Pharisee spoke to himself, deriding the woman for her sinfulness and Jesus, too, for even allowing her to touch him.  Jesus knew the Pharisee’s heart and set him straight with the direct comparison of his lack of hospitality to her humble act of service, love and esteem.  He also presented a parable dealing with debtors forgiven of different amounts: the one forgiven of the greater amount would love more than the one forgiven little.

Both the host and his unbidden guest were in need of repentance.  The difference between the two was that she embraced it and he denied it.  The account of this sinful, yet penitent woman, is a brilliant example of actions speaking far louder than words. It’s an easy thing to say you’re sorry for your past wrong-doing. Words are cheap. But her tears were her confession that spoke of genuine sorrow for a less than perfect past, the humility of her action spoke of deep sincerity, and her sacrifice of the expensive ointment—worth months or years of income to the common laborer—spoke of commitment. These are three attitudes that are among the most essential requirements of true repentance.

The Pharisee was true to his station in life.  He had carefully observed the Law and had staked his righteousness on the perfection of his performance.  The inevitable conclusion a Pharisee would draw from such flawless adherence would be the absolute certainty of his own “rightness”, which is actually the gateway to pride, and a portal to a whole new world of sin just waiting to be explored.  In a way, pride is the most insidious of sins, in that it speaks the comforting lie that says, “I’m alright,” or “I deserve God’s congratulation.”  Perhaps this man had been present when some Pharisees had looked down their noses at Jesus’s disciples and complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30) “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  (vv. 31-32)  The irony is that Jesus was probably telling them that they were all sick, and they all needed a doctor. Sadly, their prideful condition did not allow them to see that. This is the same scenario in virtually every scene involving the Pharisees, who over and over proved themselves to be the quintessence of self-righteous prigs.  Law-keeping on the scale to which the Pharisees took it required constant attention to human-imposed details on top of the commands provided by God.  There were multiplied volumes of commands and inferences layered on top of those commands, like spackle over a patch in a damaged wall.  Like nearsighted plowmen, they were unable to fix their eyes on any true goal or prize, and their straight furrows were running askew.  Theirs was a life of tunnel-vision as they walked a tightrope with nothing to catch them should they fall, no net, no grace, and no appreciation for the broader vista of life.

The sinful woman, on the other hand, mustered her faith and acted on it. She could have watched Jesus from the gallery of observers as he taught, she could have said to herself that she believed that he could forgive her, and then done no more. But she humbled herself in that act of utter contrition, and gave her burden to Jesus, which he took from her with four simple words, in our reading of the account: “Your sins are forgiven.”  Her active, resolute faith had saved her.  Jesus’s final instruction to her was simply to “Go in peace.”

In Luke 15, there are three parables of loss and return, fall and redemption, failure and repentance.  In the story of the shepherd and his sheep, as with the story of the woman and her coins, there was joy on recovery of that which was lost.  In both cases, there was action involved in getting back the lost possession: the shepherd searched, the woman swept, and there was joy in the return.

In the third and most famous of the trio, one of two sons asked his father for his inheritance, left home, lived riotously, then suffered the indignity of a reversal of fortune, compounded by a withering famine. This led to the humiliating scene of this once proud young man who, starving, coveted the husks fed to the hogs in his charge.  In one of the best descriptions in all of scripture, or perhaps all of written history and literature, Jesus says the young man “…came to himself.”  He woke up.  He realized his condition, and resolved to return home, not expecting to return to his place as a member of the family, but rather to be well-supplied as a servant.  Like the sinful woman in chapter 7, he demonstrated those essential attitudes of repentance: he was sorry for the way he had squandered the inheritance, a gift from his father; he was willing to accept the humble station of a servant; and he committed to his repentance by his arduous journey home.  Upon his return, the wonderful, forgiving father welcomed him with open arms: this lost boy was found, and was rewarded with the joy of the restoration of his place in the family, even as David had prayed for the restoration of the joy of God’s salvation.

The older brother was furious, accusing the gracious father of cruelty and unfairness.  After all, he had been the righteous one, staying where he was supposed to, taking care of business as he should.  This older brother was the type of person that Jesus referred to in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 who signed on early for a set wage, and grumbled when those who came late were paid the same one denarius, but with less work.  Self-righteousness carries with it its own particular brand of abject bitterness, and a deep-seated anger that refuses to examine or admit one’s own faults.  It is steeped in pride, framed by suspicion, and leads to a joyless existence.  The self-righteous are wretched and pitiable creatures, but their hubris-tinted lenses prevent them from seeing themselves as they truly are.  And so it was with the older brother.

The wise father let his son go, knowing that to refuse would engender nothing but anger and discord.  He also welcomed his return.  He let him make his own choices and mistakes.  In keeping with that benevolent character, this man didn’t rebuke the older brother for his outburst of jealousy.  He gently reminded him that he had nothing to be jealous about, that he never lacked for anything as a member of the household.  I feel a catch in my throat and a tear in my eye when I read his words to this jealous son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  An honest person will likely identify with the younger, errant, and then penitent son.  A self-righteous person will likely find no fault in the older brother.  But anyone should see the goodness of God in the loving father.

Repenting is one of the hardest things a person can do.  It requires brutal honesty with one’s self, and like Paul, a willingness to buffet one’s body to keep it in subjection.  Over the years, I have seen people repeatedly make public confessions and pledge their repentance every week or two.  They were courageous for taking those steps, but they, too, failed to understand the meaning of true repentance.  It takes more than an expression of guilt: it takes commitment, vigilance, and strength of will to make the repentance stand the test of further temptation.  How do I know?  Because I’m human, and I know how my life is filled with temptations leading to stumbles, and not a few falls.  Confession is recognizing when you have fallen, and is necessary before asking for forgiveness.  Repentance is the will to get back up, put the past behind you and keep moving forward.  Crossing the finish line is going to require both.

True repentance is essential to true righteousness.  Self-righteousness sees no need for repentance.  But even for the most self-righteous people of the Bible, there was hope.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who by honest investigation apparently became a follower of Jesus, trading his own self-righteousness for God’s righteousness.  Joseph of Arimathea, who was likely to have been a Pharisee as he was a member of the Sanhedrin, was a disciple of Jesus.  But the ultimate example of the triumph of true righteousness was the conversion of the self-professed Hebrew of Hebrews, the devout Saul the Pharisee who became Paul the Apostle.  Based on these examples, along with that of the eminently fallible yet penitent David, the sinful woman and the lost son, anyone can change.  The question that remains is, “Do we have what it takes to make it happen?”

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