Jesus said, “unless you repent, you will perish in the same way” Luke 13:5 – (Gospel for 3rd Sunday of Lent)
Metanoia – New Testament word for repentance. Meta – “after” “beyond” and Noia, relating to “mind.”
“Repentance means to go beyond the mind we have” – Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian.
The Stories we Inhabit
Every morning I glance at the Tabloid headlines as I buy my own paper. Why do I do it? The French call this experience ‘l’appel du vide’ – the call of the abyss – the attracting, bewitching voice that tells you to look down from a dizzying height and then says, ‘go on, jump!’
A certain American lady I know has a similar weakness for reading the comment threads beneath online articles. She knows the package of spite and meanness to be found there – and yet still she looks!
The call of the abyss fascinates and attracts and, if it can, likes to subvert our better angels. It likes to tell us stories that egos love to hear. One of them goes like this:
‘You, yes you dear reader, are a victim. You might not think it, but you are. You are a victim of migrants, liberal elites, the disabled, welfare claimants. These oppressors prey on your misguided charity, take advantage of your naive sense of fair play, exploit your generosity. They want what you have. They have no intention of working for it, but they want it all the same and you are going to give it to them. You’re a fool, and here’s why: the whining, welfare-claiming, benefit-seeking, asylum-taking poor deserve their affliction. The real victim in this world is queuing at Waitrose, not a foodbank’.
In this story, natural disasters and personal catastrophes are the universe’s way of playing catch up: the feckless are finally getting what they deserve.
“Those victims of Pilate, those 18 killed by the falling tower – do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!” – Jesus, Luke 13
The devil is, of course, the father of half-truths. We can all think of generous and kind people who’ve done well because they’ve sacrificed and worked hard; we can think of others who’ve managed their affairs with…..rather less energy and prudence. But does anyone really believe that their own random, personal anecdotes explain the unjust allocation of suffering in the world?
It’s a moral laziness of the worst kind. You come across it in the calloused soul whose first internally whispered reaction to neglected children or homeless refugees is “I’m the real victim here”.
Ok, it’s rarely admitted in such an open way (but just glance at those anonymous comments. Go on, I dare you!) – But how many times have you heard someone complain of suffering and then say, “what I have I done to deserve this?” – as if there’s an inverse relationship between suffering and virtue.
In today’s gospel, Jesus picks up this thread. People tell him about the victims of Pilate’s cruelty, and also about a tower that’s crushed 18 bodies in Siloam. He knows many of His audience are thinking ‘these folks must have had it coming’.
The sigh from the Son of God echoes through the pages: “do we really have to state the bleeding obvious?”
Yes we do.
Ok. Right. Here’s the thing. Suffering doesn’t just happen to bad people. (the Saints, the martyrs, the prophets, -anyone?) Stuff happens. There’s an inbuilt randomness to the universe. Some argue that, without it, without at least some degree of micro and macro unpredictability built into the very core of the system, there could be no freedom anywhere for anyone; everything would be automata. Providence, God’s holding-in-being of all that is, sustains but does not coerce creation. The freedom that allows us to make choices requires an elemental freedom that also allows for the emergence of volcanoes, earthquakes, cats, Donald Trump’s hair, bugs and all kinds of weird stuff. In life, wretched things can happen to anyone, and it’s not because of some Karma or ying-yang or because some pagan deity with a fragile ego pats nice people on the head and whacks those who aren’t. Stuff just happens. The freedom humanoids have to be morons explains a lot of it, but not all of it. How freedom, randomness, and divine purpose all fits together, I can’t translate that for you at this very moment. One day, we’ll get a better picture of it all but, right now, what’s your human response to it all? Because there’s a response that actually heals and blesses, and a response that makes it all a zillion times worse.
(Btw, that’s not what Jesus actually said. I’m paraphrasing)
No says Jesus, pain is not proportionately related to virtue or vice. Those poor Galileans no more deserved to suffer than anyone else in this town. But then Jesus goes further. He says, “unless you repent, you will suffer in a way that’s just as bad as those unfortunate souls. You’ll be piling pain onto pain, wound onto wound”.
When we hear those words, “unless you repent”, we all think immediately of some clerical bully hectoring a socially weaker group of people. (no Jesse, that’s just you.)
And yes, I’ve preached homilies in which I’ve physically demonstrated how the word ‘repent’ means to turn around. But the word ‘repentance’ is so much more life-giving than that thin gruel.
In Hebrew (I know none, I’m relying on Tom Wright here) the word repentance is all about coming home. Repent is what the prodigal son does when he realises that he’s living on pig swill. It’s why the Baptist calls for repentance at the Jordan River. Crossing the Jordan for Jewish people was a sign of coming home – very much like, if you’re Welsh, the feeling you get when you cross the Severn Bridge and see the “welcome” sign
And when you’re truly home, i.e., the place where you belong – are longed-for, the place where repentance takes you, you flourish.
Now, I must introduce you to Stavros. He’s this little Greek that I know….
The Greek word that the New Testament uses for repentance is even more mind-expanding. It’s metanoia, and the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg defines it as ‘going beyond the mind that we have’.
‘The mind that we have is the mind acquired by being socialized in our particular place and time. The natural result of growing up is to have an enculturated mind, a way of being shaped by what we have learned. Few if any of us escape this. So to go beyond the mind that we have means seeing in a new way – a way shaped by God. This is repentance….the Bible does speak of repenting of sins. But the emphasis is not so much on contrition and sorrow and guilt, but about turning from them and returning to God…..going beyond the mind we have and seeing things in a new way’ Borg, Speaking Christian, p. 159
There are ways of seeing the world that will shrivel us. There are stories about the world that will make us fearful of others, critical of those less fortunate, suspicious of outsiders. Such stories saturate our imaginations. And, says Jesus, unless we repent of such self – deceiving, self – serving narratives, unless we ‘go beyond this mind’ we will start to die inside. We will perish.
but there’s another way….
If repentance is being renewed in our minds (Romans 12:2) -in the way that we see ourselves, God and others, what might that story sound like, feel like, look like?
It might go something like this:’we are not living in a hopeless dystopia or a Disneyesque fairly tale, but a redemption story. That means suffering will come our way, but it will be met, out-loved and out-healed. Utimate reality is not out to get us. On the contrary, the beating heart of the universe is a compassion that we can’t begin to describe (Luke 6:35-6). Because of it, because there are people who are open to it, we are the recipients of more kindness and generosity than we could ever deserve or repay. The worse that can and will happen – death- has been been embraced by Jesus, and overcome. There is an abyss that still calls to us, filling us with lies and accusations, but Christ has entered it, and is beneath it, so even if we fell into it, He’d be there (Psalm 139). So, ultimately, there is nothing to be afraid of; we can learn to let go of fears, our need to show off, self-promote, ‘be’ something at the expense of others, aggressively defend our boundaries, because what my soul most craves has already been and always will be given. We are embraced by the Divine compassion and that’s never going to change. Ever. Our response to the world can therefore be full of gratitude and generosity. We can repent. Come home. Embrace life’.
To embrace this story, to see things in this way, is to exchange pig swill for figs. It is to come home. It is to pass from death to life. It is to allow the heart to become truly fruitful and life-giving.