Our readings this Sunday focus us on the possibility of repentance.
The prophet Ezekiel shows the life-and-death necessity of repentance: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity . . . he must die.” There’s a middle part of the sentence that I’ve left out, but don’t miss the conclusion: iniquity, says Ezekiel, leads to death: spiritual death, ultimate death.
Whereas he who “does what is right and just . . . shall surely live, he shall not die.” Ezekiel is making life-and-death claims.
Now, there’s a bigger narrative that surrounds this. The people say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” The Hebrew word for fair is rooted in the idea of balance: the old translations, both English and Latin, have “equal.” Does God’s giving life and death according to righteousness “balance” with the reality?
God says, through Ezekiel, that the Lord is very fair. He who turns away from life receives death.
The old Greek translation for “fair” here is about being “straight.” We continue straight on. He who aims at destruction ends in destruction. He who aims at life finds life.
What is “fair” is for God to give us what we ask for. We cannot rest on our laurels: we have to head straight in the direction we want to go.
In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells of the two sons, one who changed his mind and did what his father asked, one who changed his mind and did not do what his father asked. “Which of the two did the father’s will?” The first.
But the second part of the reading takes us a step further. “When John came to you in the way of righteousness,” Jesus says, “you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”
The word “repentance” hangs over this whole reading. It is the word Jesus uses for the son who changed his mind and does the right thing. (He does not use it for the son who doesn’t do the right thing.)
And “repentance” is the key word that goes with John the Baptist. After the infancy narrative, Matthew’s Gospel begins, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2). And John gets killed for telling King Herod to repent of his marriage to his brother’s wife.
John’s “way of righteousness” is the call to repent, and turn in the right direction.
But the really interesting word here is that Jesus says they “did not believe him.” Believe? Perhaps he means, “believe that you need to repent.” But then he says that “when you saw” that the sinners had repented, “you did not later change your minds” (it’s a slightly different word, related to repentance) “and believe him.”
The conversion of the prostitutes and tax collectors is evidence that should have made them change their minds and believe John’s message. Evidence of what? This is evidence that conversion is possible.
The key figure is Jesus.
The reading from Philippians, working up to the Christ hymn, begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy . . . .”
All these words are rich. Christ is the encourager, the consoler: it’s the same word used for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, and for what those who mourn receive in the Beatitudes, consolation. He comes to our aid. He helps us.
He nurtures us with his love. He gives us a “participation” – a koinonia, or communio – in his Spirit. He feels compassion for our plight: the word speaks of visceral feelings, in his gut. And he has “mercy”: actually “pity,” for the death-dealing plight of our unrighteousness.
Jesus comes to our aid. This is why we “believe” in repentance. It seems impossible to turn the right way, impossible to become good when we are so wicked. But look at the sinners who have converted, and believe: Jesus comes to our aid, and leads us to the path of life.
The reading from Philippians is long, and endlessly wonderful. We don’t have space to do it justice.
Let us only note the key word, which gets translated “attitude,” “mind,” “thinking.” The Greek seems to have to do with “putting reins on our mind.”
We are to have the same attitude of mind as Jesus. Because he has compassion on our sins, we can have compassion. Because we believe that he can heal, we must live as if he can heal: as if he can heal us, and as if he really can heal those around us.
Are there places in your life – in yourself or in those around you – where you have too little faith in Jesus’s power to give the gift of repentance?