March 27, 2022
“Jesus Redefines Repentance”
Rev. James Rausch
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I received some criticism of my sermon last week. Of course, it wasn’t on the content of the sermon. That was great, as usual. It was rather on the length. This person informed me that the sermon lasted for 38 minutes. Now, granted, my average sermons over the years have lasted about 17 to 19 minutes, so that was admittedly a long sermon.
So, the mature thing for me to do is to receive this criticism as constructive and keep it in mind going forward, without holding any grudge against the person who was running the timer. And of course, it would be the Christian thing to do, of course, to maintain the anonymity of this person. So, I won’t say her name. I’ll instead only say that my wife, who shall remain anonymous, not only keeps track of the length of my sermons, but has been doing so for 25 years! And without fail, if I start to trend long, like clockwork – pun intended – I can expect a reminder of that fact.
Thank goodness she’s in the choir behind me most of the time so we don’t often make eye contact during the sermon. Because I know if we lock eyes, she’s just waiting to glance down at her wrist, and then chuckle while I become flustered and try to hurry things along.
Well, the good news is that I can be trained. I can learn my lesson. I have come to know the value of accountability. Therefore, in order to improve the situation, I plan to take the unprecedented step of asking session, when we next meet, to pass a resolution stating that the church will confiscate my wife’s watch.
Further, I will ask session to issue an anonymous commendation to the person who currently attends Bible Study for an hour each week – well, sometimes and hour and 15 minutes – who frequently says to me, “I can’t believe how quickly the hour flies by.” This anonymous person, whose initials are Renee Petrausch, will be, if session does the right thing, awarded custody of my wife’s watch going forward.
Now that this is all out in the open – and, mind you, I’ll be watching to see who among you goes up to my wife after service to thank her – I’ll share with you my current dilemma. With the teaching I have been blessed to receive on the parables, and especially on our passage today, the parable of the prodigal son, or the parable of the two lost sons, I simply cannot deliver a 19-minute sermon. I cannot even convey what I need to convey in 38 minutes. Not even close. So, we have a choice. We could either have some coffee brought in and then lock all the doors to prevent your escape… departure. All in favor say, Aye!” That’s what I thought.
Or I can do something I’ve not done before. I can break this sermon into parts, ending with a cliffhanger each week, and then trust you all to keep coming back. That means we still be studying this same parable on Palm Sunday, two weeks from today. But I’m willing to try that because what has been shared with me about this parable and its Middle Eastern context, is hands down the finest Christian teaching I have ever come across, and I’m dying to share it with everyone I possibly can.
I studied it under Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who was born in Egypt while his parents were Presbyterian missionaries there. He lived, studied, and taught throughout the Middle East for nearly 40 years and acquired a mastery of the languages and culture that helps us to much more lucidly receive and understand the Bible’s teachings, such as Jesus’ parables, in ways that help us to know better how the original hearers received and understood them. And the result is, you will learn, in a whole new way, the theology Jesus was teaching – theology that made some people like the Pharisees very upset and angry, and redefined for all time the meaning of the word repentance.
Now, the literal meaning of repentance is to turn, to change direction. But the theological meaning of repentance for the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, as well as for a vast number of people throughout history – including today – goes something like this: Say you’re playing baseball in a vacant neighborhood lot. You take a hard swing at a pitch and crack a foul ball way off the side, toward a nice couple’s house. The ball picks out a nice central point on the glass of their large dining room window and travels through it with a great shattering noise. What do you do then? Now, some of you, like Seth, are still young enough to run away as fast as you can before you get caught.
But what if you can’t run away. Or, even better, what it your conscience won’t allow you to run away? You feel something inside calling you to take responsibility for what you have done. That can actually happen! So, you set about what some cultures, our own and the Pharisees’ included, call repentance. And it entails several steps. First, you feel sorry, accept responsibility, and apologize to the offended party. You go knock on the door and say, “I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs…. I was the one who hit the ball that broke your window, and I feel very badly about it.” Then, you make restitution for the damage you caused. “Of course, Mr. and Mrs…. I will help you clean up the mess, I will tape up plastic to cover the hole, and I will pay for the replacement of your window. Finally, you give evidence of your sincerity by saying that you have learned your lesson and will not do such a thing again. “Please know, Mr. and Mrs…. that I have learned my lesson and I will not play ball so near to yours or anyone’s house again.”
There. Resolution. All is restored. Now things have been set , and you have been restored to right relationship with Mr. and Mrs. What a good lesson. Would that more people accept responsibility for their actions and follow the steps in this way! Amen! That sounds so good to some people that it must have come from God. And it did. The law given to the ancient Israelites through Moses laid out with great detail everything that constituted breaking windows and other laws, and laid out the steps required to make things right again. They had laws for offenses committed against neighbors, and laws for offenses committed against God. And to varying degrees, people tried to follow the requirements to make restoration when they broke laws. To a great extent, we’re glad that people at that time and throughout history have tried to live by a system of accountability for when they cause damage or harm.
However, some people have come to apply that system so precisely and with such devotion, that they don’t allow for reconciliation in other ways, more graceful and less formulaic ways. The Pharisees were at the top of the list of such people. Well, next to Hyunmi, anyway. You should see how she runs choir practice! Now, with the Pharisees, in a way, you can admire their intentions, and in many cases, their remarkable discipline. But in the gospels, we see that this ultra-staunch approach came into drastic contrast with Jesus’ understanding of the purpose of the law and repentance as they apply to our broken relationship with God. The formula worked in light of the broken laws, but Jesus was more concerned with broken relationships. For this, the formula was not adequate, as we will see.
Not surprisingly, when Jesus is observed associating with – and even eating with sinners and tax collectors – those who could only be restored to right relationship with the community if the completed all the formulaic steps of repentance, he was seen as offering acceptance to those who were as yet unacceptable. How could a teacher claim to represent God if he was not willing to correct those who had gone astray by shunning them until they saw the error of their ways and did the right thing?
The Pharisees asked, “What Jesus, is your theological and Scriptural basis for undermining the goodness of the Law that was given to us by God through Moses?” Jesus readily answered their concerns by telling the Pharisees a gripping and remarkable story that first sucked them in by seemingly agreeing with their perspective, but then dropped a bomb on their perspective by redefining and expanding the very meaning of repentance from God’s higher perspective.
So, let’s look at the simple but profound diagram I had copied into the bulletin that is the result of 25 years of study of Jesus as a metaphorical theologian by Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey. It looks like a baseball infield. We start at home plate with God as all things start with God. In light of humanity’s broken relationship with God, God acts. God is the origin. Humanity is never the starting point. We are not the origin of anything, rather we can only respond to God’s action.
Now, there is a discernable pattern in Jesus’ parables, and indeed throughout Scripture, that shows how God repeatedly reaches out to humanity across the great division of our broken relationship in costly demonstrations of unexpected love. There we are at first base. God has acted. It is therefore left for humanity to respond.
I know handshaking is not as acceptable as it was before Covid, but is there anyone here who might be willing to make a demonstration by offering to shake my hand? Okay, thank you. You’ve extended your hand. Now please freeze for a moment. Can you see, a gesture has been made to me, and now the ball is in my court? I have a choice. I can respond and offer my hand to indicate that I accept the cordial greeting. Or I can choose not to respond and leave you hanging there in humiliation, thus causing or reinforcing a breach in our relationship.
When a gesture is offered to me and the ball is placed in my court, it is up to me to accept or not accept. Keep that in mind as we go forward. We learn in this parable and indeed in all of Jesus’ teachings that God, in love, reaches out to each of us. How will we respond?
Now on to second base. Who is God reaching out to? Sinners. Yes, however Jesus knows sinners quite well, and he had identified two kinds of sinners: Sinners who break the law, and sinners who keep the law. He will make this quite clear in the story as the young son who insults his father and leaves home to squander the family wealth and the older son who stays behind and works the farm and later, in self-righteous anger, insults his father by not accepting the roles of reconciler and party host that fall to him by custom. Examples of law-breaking sinners as well as law-keeping sinners are myriad throughout Scripture and in our observation of human history down to today.
In the Bible, we can observe that Jesus’ companions were law-breaking sinners. The Pharisees were law-keeping sinners.
Here in our time, we can observe Tom and Nancy Butler. Well, I’ll let you all decide which one is the law breaker and which is the law keeper.
Secularists who reject and even deride the church are often looked at as law-breaking sinners. Church-goers who self-righteously view themselves as better than others are seen as law-keeping sinners. Well at least that’s true of other denominations. Thank God Presbyterians are never guilty of this. 😊
But in Scripture, we learn that Jesus sees sinners in these two categories. And he calls all of them to repentance. Some recognize their need for repentance readily. Others have a more difficult time.
Now, for today, I will simply ask you to take it on faith that Jesus takes the definition of repentance beyond the legalistic formula into something radically graceful. The legalistic formula we know so well is 1] Accepting Responsibility 2] Feeling Sorry 3] Making Restitution 4] Demonstrating Sincerity of your Changed Understanding and 5} Promising Not to Offend Again. For Jesus, however, God’s higher ways and thoughts expand the definition of repentance away from what we must do, and instead toward how we respond – respond to what only the offended party can do. That is, we respond to the gesture of reconciliation by accepting it. God reaches out in a costly demonstration of unexpected love, like a hand being held out to us, and it is ours only to respond – or not. The young son, we will see next time, can only respond to his father’s overwhelming gesture of love by accepting the grace of having been found and reclaimed.
Now when one repents by accepting the gesture of grace and love by being found and reclaimed, God restores the relationship and grants the status that we are now “righteous,” or in right relationship with God. Ours, once again, is only to respond out of thankfulness, which takes us to third base on the diagram. This is where Presbyterians and many other Christians live. We don’t worry about whether or not we will be saved. We instead live in gratitude and service to God because of God’s grace. God sought us out. We accept God’s love and restored relationship. Now, let’s get busy and love our neighbors with kindness, support, food, water, shelter, companionship, grace, etc.
So, please keep in mind for next time: In Jesus’s theology, when we repent, when we change direction, it is by accepting being found by the love that has sought us and not a formula of contrite actions. And remember, this makes law-keeping sinners very nervous, because they want repentance to remain as something in our control. They want to see payment rendered in such a way that accounts are settled. But again, we will see next time that what the real issue was in the story was not the money that the kid wasted or how he might pay it back. It was that he broke his father’s heart by wishing him dead. No amount of payment by the son could repair the broken relationship. Only the father’s love could choose to offer the grace of a restored relationship. The young son accepted that grace, and there was a huge celebration. The elder son will be offered that grace as well. How will he respond?
There’s our cliffhanger, so make sure you show up next time… unless, of course, you’re Pam, who has decided, without the pastor’s permission, to travel for two whole weeks.