“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” Joel 2:12-13
What does penitence really mean? Almost every act of worship begins with words of confession to God for our wrongdoings, words of repentance, of penitence, but how seriously do we take them? Are those words life-changing?
The Palestinian bishop, Elias Chacour once spoke bluntly to his own community about what repentance, turning around, being reconciled with God, and with one another, really meant:
“This morning while I celebrated the liturgy, I found someone who is able to help you. In fact, he is the only one who can work the miracle of reconciliation in this village. This person who can reconcile you is Jesus Christ, and he is here with us . . . So on Christ’s behalf, I say this to you: Either you kill each other right here in your hatred and then I will celebrate your funerals gratis, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled together before I open the doors of the church. If that reconciliation happens, Christ will truly become your Lord, and I will know I am becoming your pastor and your priest. That decision is now yours.’
When we join in the words of the prayer of confession, do we sometimes skim over them? Do we try to dodge to avoid the full impact of what is being asked of us? Do we try to avoid the realisation that being a Christian makes life-changing demands of us?
Elias Chacour was ministering in a community where the divisions were deep; where people attended services and professed a love for God, while holding on to a visceral hatred not just for other people within the community, but for others within the same church building. Only a head on confrontation would ever challenge the depth of feeling; allusions and oblique comments would have been taken as references to someone else. He sought to shock people into change, to approach the matter as directly as had the prophets of the Old Testament.
Repentance is a central theme of Scripture; it is at the heart of our relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew words for repentance are “nicham” meaning “to feel sorrow“ and “shuv” meaning “to return”. Repentance is not a form of words, it is something that is felt on the inside and that prompts people to change their behaviour. How often does joining in the words of prayers of confession cause us to fell grief inside? How often do we go from worship determined to change our behaviour?
When we look at the book of Judges, we see there is a pattern of history that is repeated through the following centuries. The people repeatedly turn their backs on God and on his Law, which leads to them suffering his judgment, which then prompts them to repent of their wrongdoing, which brings forgiveness from God. This pattern continues through the time of the kings — a cycle of sin, downfall, repentance, and restoration.
Time and again people fail God and time and again he forgives them when they say sorry. It is not just about individuals, it is the whole people who fail and who need to repent: God promises that the whole nation will be changed. In the Second Book of Chronicles Chapter 7 Verse 14, God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
When we read the prophets, we see repentance as a common theme through their writings, repentance that was about feeling sorrow and changing one’s life and not just about taking part in prayers.
The prophet Joel understood how readily people would repent in their words, but not in their hearts. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing”, says the Lord in Joel Chapter 2 Verses 12-13. In Joel’s time, tearing one’s clothes was seen as an outward sign of penitence, yet the rending of garments was no more a sign of a changed person in his time than reciting words is in our time. Joel looked for a profound inner change.
Have we ever thought about penitence in those Biblical terms? The prophets see repentance as more than something required of individuals, repentance is necessary for communities and even for whole countries.
Turning to the New Testament, we see Jesus beginning his public ministry with his baptism by John. Jewish people who used baptism as a sign of washing away their past and beginning anew; it was a sign of repentance, of a desire to get rid of the impurities of one’s former life and begin anew. The people who went to the Jordan to be baptized by John went for a baptism of penitence.
Baptism was not something undertaken once and for all, but rather was one that might be repeated if the penitent person felt it was necessary, but even that baptism was sought by those whose repentance was less than heartfelt. John the Baptist expresses anger at those who come seeking baptism, but have not changed in their hearts or their lives. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verses 7-8, John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that repentance should bring visible change, that it should be clear in their lives, he says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.
The word John the Baptist uses there for “repentance” is the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia) is a word used by Jesus himself in saint mark Chapter 1 Verse 15. Jesus declares, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ Literally, “metanoia” means “after one’s mind”; having thought, or said, or done something wrong, one thinks back on it and says “sorry”.
Saint Paul writes of the power of such repentance in the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 7 Verse 10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret”. Paul’s words suggest that penitence progresses in stages: there is the godly grief, the feeling of sorrow, the hurt caused by thinking about what one has done wrong; which leads to the repentance, the turning away from the former ways and the returning to God; which lead to salvation, an assurance that sins have been given and that one has re-established a right relationship with God. Such repentance brings “no regret”, says Paul.
Repentance was at the heart of the history of Israel, and, had we learned from Saint Paul, we would have understood that repentance needs to be at the heart of the life of any nation. Unless there is an expression of sorrow and a genuine change, there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there is no reconciliation, and without reconciliation, resentment and bitterness are allowed to fester; the clear conscience and the mood of no regret of which Paul writes cannot be found. If there had been a real acceptance of Paul’s words in the politics of our nation, then the pictures we see on the television news might have been very different.
The greatest difficulty with penitence is that it is always easy to see the need of someone else for it, but not so easy to see our own need. It is a difficulty Jesus identifies in Saint Matthew Chapter 7 Verse 3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
We are called to rend our hearts, to turn around, to head in a new direction. “Return to me with all your heart” is God’s call through the prophet Joel. Returning to him with all our hearts means seriously looking at what divides us from God, and what divides us from others, and being wholeheartedly determined to remove whatever it is that blocks the way.