Chris Feetenby takes repentance as the theme of his Lenten meditation
THERE is a lovely story in the Old Testament, based on fact one feels sure, which illustrates repentance. The author relates how King David, hardly a man lacking material possessions, seduced the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11, the period being roughly 1000 BC). When David's schemes to cover up his greed and lust failed, Uriah was sent off to fight in the front line of battle, and was killed there. The prophet Nathan rebuked David (2 Sam 12) by telling him a parable of a rich man with flocks and herds in abundance who robbed a poor man of a ewe lamb, his only possession, David was incensed at the injustice of the theft and showed repentance for his sin when he understood the comparison between Nathan's story and what he had actually done. The penitential psalm 51 (50 in the Latin vulgate) is said to be David's expression of repentance.
In a similar way King Ahab repented in 1 Kings 21 after the prophet Elijah had rebuked him: "he tore his garments and put sackcloth next to his skin". He had sinned by encompassing the death of Naboth in order to obtain possession of his vineyard. The incident described here happened some hundred years or so after the time of David. But it is a sad fact that many other sins. of every kind, described in the Old Testament appear to have gone unrepented.
The prophets who lived after Nathan and Elijah developed the notion that sin separated mankind from God. Amos saw in injustice to the poor an offence against the God of justice. Hosea, through the suffering caused by his unfaithful wife, had an insight into the offence against the God of Love; and Isaiah, the man with unclean lips who felt himself so unworthy, could see the offence against the God of holiness. Jeremiah's lamentations seem almost (but not quite) to represent a situation of hopelessness because people are wicked and will not repent.
Yet the prophets did not see punishment as God's intention. They believed God was faithful to Israel despite all its infidelities and they formed the notion that if Israel could not be saved completely there would be a faithful remnant in an ideal kingdom that would be allowed to survive. The hope of the prophets centred on an ideal ruler, an anointed one, or Messiah. They expect him to arise in some later age, and the prophet Isaiah referred to him as Immanuel, God with us.
The idea of individual punishment can be seen in Jeremiah 31:30: "each will die for his own guilt", Ezekiel echoes this idea: "the one who has sinned is the one to die" (Ezekiel 18:4). When Ezekiel was writing in about 600 BC the Jewish people had not come to believe in life after death; indeed even in the time of Jesus only the Pharisees and their supporters believed in a resurrection, a concept denied by the more traditional forces in Judaism, notably the Sadducees. So in the time of Ezekiel Jews held the belief that God rewarded the virtuous in their earthly life; the man who repented of his sins and turned to God was to be counted as virtuous and rewarded with a long and prosperous life; the man who suffered or died was one who had sinned in some way.
The Jews of 500 BC must have had as much problem as modern man in trying to reconcile their experience — that often the wicked seem to prosper — with their faith in a just and merciful God. The book of Job dates from about this time and the author explores the idea of suffering being the result of individual sin. The character Job, not intended to be an historical person, protested his innocence to his "comforters" throughout the duration of his suffering; his suffering was emphatically not the result of sin. Although the book has a happy ending in which Job enjoyed his former prosperity one feels that the belief of justice being done during a person's earthly life is seriously undermined.
It is not surprising that Jews in later times came to believe in a resurrection and life after death; it was the only way in which they could retain their belief in the justice of God. The belief in resurrection by some sections of the Jews was a most noble one, but one for which there was precious little evidence, except the dogged belief that the God they had experienced was merciful and just. One feels that the Old Testament, rather than providing an answer to men's longings, had merely been able to state the problem clearly.
In the New Testament the public ministry of Jesus begail with the appearance of John the Baptist. His message was one of repentence like that of the prophets Nathan and Elijah. The people came to him and were baptised, confessing their sins. It has to be said that there is a certain threat in John's preaching; that without repentance a terrible doom hangs over them; the Pharisees were asked. "Who warned you to flee from the coming retribution?" (Matthew 3:7). And yet there is the feeling that for all the sincerity of John and his disciples, repentance, turning to God, is not enough. "I baptise you with water for repentance, but the one who comes after me is more powerful than I . . . He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11).
The baptism of Jesus is represented as being quite different from John's, indeed one might say that John's baptism, although important, does no more than make people hope for the power to overcome sin. The baptism of Jesus promises the Holy Spirit who can, if permitted, effect that conquering of sin. For the first time in the Bible it appears that there is some hope of salvation from sin.
The repentance which Jesus demands is a development of the ideas of the prophets and of John the Baptist. Perhaps the extra dimension he adds is that of realism. Jesus claimed to have forgiven sins, that is to have put things right between man and God, something which previously had only been hoped for. The realism which Jesus adds is clearly seen in the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12); the people say, "We have never seen anything like this".
The authoritative teaching and healing of Jesus was convincing to his followers, but at that stage in his life he had not shown how the general problem of evil could be overcome. Perhaps that is why the scribes and pharisees came in for such harsh treatment. They seem to have claimed that by reducing everything to a series of laws and keeping them perfectly it was possible to overcome the effects of sin. Jesus demonstrated how this is patently not so; an example is found in Matthew 15:1-9.
Part of repentance involves an acknowledgement of the situation and an admission of the ultimate inability of unaided man to do anything about it. This is nicely reflected in the Greek word for repentance — metanoia. The word involves mental or thought capacities, adopting a new attitude, facing up to the situation, turning one's mind to what God wants. Hebrew thought involved a much more physical approach, more of turning round, shuv as one would if one had been going the wrong way. It emphasises another aspect of repentance, a recognition that one might have to retrace one's steps if one has taken a wrong turning; the progressive way is not always the right way.
But acknowledging the way things are may seem profoundly depressing. It seems like very bad news to discover that, despite all our good intentions, we are in a hopeless situation. What is the solution? That must have been the way things seemed to the disciples after the crucifixion, and it is sometimes the way things seem to us. Sadly, for Judas, this seems to have been the limit of his vision, although I do not think we have necessarily to believe his situation is beyond the power of the risen Christ.
But the resurrection changed all that; Jesus, through his perfect obedience to the Father and his perfect perseverance showed that it was possible for our situation to be saved. The resurrection is crucial. St Paul has left us his thoughts on the resurrection and salvation. One might deduce it from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles but St Paul set out clearly in 1 Corinthians this process of repenting and accepting the situation of man and trying to achieve salvation by keeping the law. His failure was turned to success by his acceptance of the risen Christ as we can see from the profound changes in his life: from approving of the murder of Stephen in Acts 7 to his conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. The conversion is an event described no less than three times in Acts — surely an indication of the, importance attached to it by Luke and presumably by Paul himself. Despite the initial suspicions against Paul by the other apostles his eventual acceptance surely suggests that the other apostles had similar thought-processes.
Repentance is intimately connected with faith; we have only to read the early chapters of Acts to see that. The early converts to Christianity had to accept the resurrection of Jesus, repent of their sins and be baptised. This would attain for them salvation. Jesus was saviour, an idea reflected by his very name. The baptism was to some extent symbolic but contained an effectiveness (the Holy Spirit) which John's baptism had not. One can see how this idea developed into the Catholic teaching about the sacraments — "effective signs"; they do actually effect something, although they do require our free acceptance repentance.
The baptism of infants is not a vain exercise, even though, for some, the stage of coming to accept the hopelessness of the situation appears excessively protracted and the stage of coming to accept the saving power of Jesus appears slow in arriving. The key is to see repentance not as a once-andfor-all event but a continuing life-long process; Christian baptism is an aid to the process of repentance as well as a symbol of it. It was John's baptism which was symbolic; the New Testament makes it clear that the baptism of Jesus is powerful as well as symbolic.
I believe that seeing repentance as a continuing lifelong process is very important. It is seen, I think, in the Catholic practices of daily prayer and of confession. We need to renew our turning to God each day, for without it we will drift away from him; it may not be strictly necessary to go to confession, but a good confessor can help us to stay in a state of metanoia.
The continuous nature of repentance is almost instinctive; indeed it must be so, for there is no advantage in being clever or wise. The mysteries of the kingdom are revealed rather to "little children" (Matthew 11:25).