Are you curious about the missing word in this title? It is a word we often associate with “turn or burn” street preachers. It’s not a word we tend to use in “polite company” (whatever that is!). It is the word, along with “believe” that distinguished the tax collectors and the prostitutes from the religious elite that our pastor talked about in a message on the parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32. It is the word “repent.
The tax collectors and prostitutes are likened by Jesus to a son who refuses to work in his father’s vineyard but then changes his mind and goes to work. The religious elite are compared to a son who says he will go and work in the vineyard but never shows up. I can personally imagine the religious elite railing on Jesus saying, “Look at all we do. We lead worship, we teach the people, we work hard in maintaining the building whereas all these people did was change their minds and believed in you after living really seedy lives. And you have the nerve to compare us to disobedient sons!”
I can sympathize with these guys because I don’t often think about how hard it is to admit that I’m on the wrong path and change my mind and embrace a different way of life, or even a different way of thinking. That’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus were saying to both the “sinners” and the “religious elite.” That’s what it means to repent. It means doing a 180 degree turn in my thinking and actions. This was brought home to me recently when I read a post on “Books that changed my mind.” I had to honestly admit that I couldn’t think of a book that “changed” my mind, although I can think of books that have influenced my thinking and that I’ve deeply appreciated. For that matter, how many of us have changed our minds about our politics, or even what our favorite pizza is?
I can imagine these religious elite folks hearing John the Baptist or even Jesus and going through the motions of repenting and believing and calling up the appropriate religious emotions. After all, “repent and believe” was a part of the religious lingo they’ve learned from Moses and the prophets. But they refused to hear and believe the invitation in “repent and believe” that urged them to give up their elaborate religious system to welcome their King and come to his parties (actually, they did sometimes but mostly to find fault).
If change is so hard, I wonder then why the tax collectors and prostitutes were so willing to change and to believe the invitation to enter the kingdom? I can’t help but wonder if part of this is that they know their lives aren’t OK and perhaps long ago had given up hope that they’d be included in any plan of God other than their destruction–and then along comes this astounding figure of Jesus (and John before him) who said that being part of God’s kingdom was for them if they’d stop doing life their way and trust in Jesus’s way of doing life.
One of the things we say about those who get older is that they become “set in their ways.” Guilty as charged! There are patterns of life, of speaking, of thinking, and yes, patterns of self-seeking, and sin that are part of how I do life. Yet the truth of the matter is that I have the temerity to serve in a Christian ministry, even in a leadership role in that ministry! I desperately need the word of “repent and believe” or I can easily start thinking that my religious performance, my years of service, my degrees and recognitions, or even the size of my library (!) are what make me special. I can be that religious elite!
Repentance and belief do not mean the radical transformation of all these patterns overnight or even by the end of a life. Rich helpfully observed that the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented may not have been able to leave their work, particularly the prostitutes who might be enslaved to a pimp. The tax collectors had obligations to Rome. A change of mind may not always mean a change of situation and it may be that the first changes Jesus wants to work in us may have nothing to do with the things we think need changing! It may mean that I become more gracious toward the failings of others having faced the failings in my own life!
Am I tolerating or excusing sin by saying this? I could be, but repentance is to embrace the obedience that trustingly follows Jesus and mourns my sin. And belief is daring to trust in an acceptance into God’s kingdom that rests not on religious performance or “sin management’. How repentance changes things is that I stop pretending to be better than I am and admit that I am probably worse off than I think, and yet for all that radically loved and accepted by God because of Jesus.
I guess if I had to choose a way to be “set” in as I get older, it is the way of repentance and belief! How about you?
This blog first appeared on my church’s Going Deeper Blog on November 19, 2014.