This isn’t anyone’s favourite passage of scripture. Jesus’ words about repentance could scarcely be more direct and confronting. Certainly, he’s saying NOW is the time to repent! Get on with it! So what is repentance, then? We can say that to repent is to turn around and go the other way. To change direction, and take the right path instead of doing what’s wrong. So there we have a “blanket” kind of idea of what repentance means. What might the details be?
In Jesus’ day there were those who were prepared to resort to armed resistance against the Roman occupying forces. We’ve read of the Zealots. Simon the Zealot was one of Jesus’ disciples. They’re the kind of people we’re referring to here. Jesus was trying to teach people that peace is one of the hallmarks of God’s kingdom. In this passage from Luke, Jesus is told of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. We may well ask: Did Pilate send troops into the temple because he feared that the gathering there might turn into a riot? Was the political situation, combined with the affront to Jewish religious sensibilities represented by the very presence of the Romans, that close to tipping the balance into violence? It could well have been. History records the Jewish revolt, and the razing of the temple by the Romans, in 70 AD.
Let’s stay with the theme of peace being one of the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, and look at our own day. Day after day we are made aware of the violence which exists in our world. Nations at war, individuals and groups in violent conflict with one another. It’s perfectly clear that the solution to all this is summed up in what has been called the second great commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Yes indeed. The huge, fundamental question is “How do we go about it?”
I think the bedrock of it all is to realise that in God’s eyes, we are all equal. Scripture tell us that God has no favourites. That’s the great leveler, and if we can get that understanding to travel from our minds to our hearts, then we are indeed on our way to loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is all part of the journey, and we need to be patient with ourselves as we make progress towards understanding, very deep within ourselves, that we are all God’s children, every one of us. The goal towards which we Christians journey is to love others as God loves us. That is the point of the Christian life: to keep making progress to loving others as we ourselves have been loved.
And so we get the picture that repentance means getting over the barriers within us which separate us from other people. Getting past the way of thinking which automatically casts people as “us and them”. Part of that problem is our tendency to have pre-conceived ideas about what any particular group of people is like. We do it with Muslims, and with migrants of all kinds. We do it with the first people of our own land, the Aborigines. We do it with all kinds of people, everywhere. Whereas our aim, as Christians, needs to be to know the person. To welcome people, and to form genuine community with them.
I think that to do this, we need to start from the point of feeling comfortable in our own skin, as it were. I mean that we need to be secure enough in our own knowledge of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ that we don’t feel threatened by others who think differently from us. We also need to be aware that others who are not professing Christians may have very valuable lessons to teach us. I am thinking specifically of Gandhi, who was one of the greatest peacemakers in history. He remained a Hindu all his life, but he loved the gospels, in particular the Sermon on the Mount, and read them frequently. His prayer life and his whole way of being was definitely illumined by the gospels.
We now need to acknowledge that being a peacemaker is not guaranteed to win us friends. Gandhi was martyred for his efforts to bring peace between Hindu and Muslim Indians. Jesus was martyred mostly for his message that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of love for all, and that he had come to inaugurate this kingdom on earth. This message was dangerous in the eyes of both political and religious authorities. Jesus set them to one side, as it were, and said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “Follow me.” Don’t accommodate yourself to the customs of society, live the way I am leading you to live.
What matters is not whether society thinks of us as a success, in the terms which are accepted by our day and age. What matters is what God sees within us, and what God knows is in our heart. Jesus said in so many ways, on very many occasions, that it’s not the externals that matter. He told us that the people who think they have their relationship with God all sewn up because they believe they obey all the rules God has laid down are mistaken. God sees what is in the heart, and when a person does not see their own imperfections God waits for them to be honest with themselves about what is right, and what is wrong.
Someone who sees their own faults and regrets them is pleasing to God. Likewise, people who are compassionate towards others- whether or not others are good to them- is pleasing to God. Our thoughts, our decision making and our actions are never going to be perfect. This is the truth of the human condition. But the saddest thing is when fear or pride cause people to believe they are perfectly alright in God’s sight, because they can’t afford in their own eyes to own the problems that really are there.
Remember the story of the pharisee and the publican. One raised his eyes to heaven and praised God that he was not like other people who did the wrong thing- especially like that publican over there. The publican, on the other hand, would not even life his eyes to heaven, but simply begged God to have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus said that it was the publican who went home right with God. So a key part of repentance, which is absolutely basic to a healthy relationship with God, is the ability to admit our faults. Repentance is not about beating ourselves over the head because we make mistakes. Nor is repentance about chronic fear of God rejecting us. No. Repentance is about turning to God when we know we have wronged others, and seeking forgiveness. God would never withhold forgiveness from someone who is sorry for what they have done. Then there is the question of making restitution for our wrongdoing- if we can. But that’s whole other sermon. Thanks be to God for the divine love and forgiveness shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen.