In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
How do you preach repentance to nice people? How do you preach repentance to good people?
In today’s gospel we find Jesus in Jerusalem. He has just aroused the attention of the religious authorities with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey. As if that were not enough, he then enters the temple and drives out those who were buying and selling there. And he begins teaching in the temple. This is the context of the controversy between Jesus and the chief priests described in today’s gospel.
Today’s gospel sees a return of John the Baptist. We normally associate John the Baptist with the beginning of the story of Jesus, and his appearance here is a little surprising, not least because he has now been dead for some time.
Of course for Christians Jesus and John the Baptist are two very different characters: John is the voice crying in the wilderness, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. But we shouldn’t overlook what they have in common. Both preached a message of repentance. And both found that it was the people on the margins who were the most responsive to their message, the people of lowest status, the people who lacked respectable morality.
There is no escaping this theme in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is found again and again with disreputable outsiders. They have a special place in his ministry – “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And they respond simply and sincerely to his call to repentance. The same thing seems to have been true of John the Baptist. Jesus says to the chief priests:
…John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Repentance seems simultaneously to be simple and complicated. There are some situations in which it is relatively straightforward. We’ve probably all now and again said or done something that we knew to be bad, and have felt the need to apologise and do what we can to make it good. There are situations in which the need for repentance is obvious, and we know what we need to do. There are situations in which the negative consequences of our actions are so obvious that the need for repentance is clear.
The simplest example I can think of is that of a hangover, a situation I’m sure none of you have ever experienced. But take it from me, after a night of heavy drinking, you wake up in the morning feeling awful, your head aching, your body sweating, and your mind full of memories of stupid and sometimes hurtful and damaging things you said and did the night before. And still worse is the restless paranoia that there may be still worse things that you cannot yet remember. In this situation, repentance comes quite naturally. You tell yourself “never again”, whilst you gaze into your own red eyes in the mirror, and you are perfectly sincere about it.
But there are also those times when it is not so clear. We try to be good, we try to be nice, and a lot of the time we think we are quite successful. We don’t steal, we don’t punch or kick anyone, we don’t get horribly drunk, we don’t take drugs, we don’t do anything really nasty. We’re engaged in respectable professions, we give to charity, we even go to church. We’re nice people.
For a person, for example, whose addictions have driven them into criminality, the need for repentance, the need for a decisive turning away from the bad decisions of the past, this need can often be quite obvious. Of course it is still very difficult to actually accomplish. But when you’re at rock bottom it’s difficult to cling to illusions about yourself. And so the tax collectors and prostitutes, the disreputable outcasts of Jesus’ day, these are the people who respond to the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself.
But for a person who presents a respectable image to the outside world and even to themselves, the need for repentance is less obvious. And yet, when we look beneath the surface, we find selfishness, greed, envy, anger, pride, vanity and all the rest. It may be well hidden, but it’s still there. When we do not scrutinise ourselves, we become enslaved to a delusion.
When we resist the call to repentance, we are trying to defend ourselves. But what we are actually doing is defending a story about ourselves, what we are actually doing is defending a person who doesn’t really exist at all.
When we resist the call to repentance, we think we are protecting ourselves against feelings of guilt. But what we are actually doing is condemning ourselves to experiencing that guilt, which comes leaching out in other areas of our lives, displaced, perhaps projected onto others, but spreading its poison none-the-less.
When we respond positively to the call to repentance, we are not opening ourselves up to misery and guilt. We are rather opening ourselves up to honesty, to freedom and to joy. Honesty with ourselves and with others, and honesty with God. Freedom from delusions, and freedom from fears that others will see behind our masks. And joy, that deep joy that comes from living in honesty and freedom with ourselves, with others and with God; that deep joy that comes from the knowledge that we are forgiven through the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The image is “John the Baptist Preaching”, by Raphael, with thanks to the National Gallery.