A father suggested instead of giving up candy, as his children did every year, they should focus on giving up a bad habit or a sin; anything that hurt their relationships with others. His youngest son decided to give up fighting with his sister. When his Dad asked how he was doing on his Lenten promise the said, “Fine, but she makes me so mad, I can’t wait till Easter!”
We, like the young boy, often miss entire point of this sacred season. We think repentance means to have a deep regret or remorse about our sin or wrongdoing and then to undertake some punishing hard-work in order to make amends. But our modern English take on our ancient texts often misses the mark – and doesn’t really capture the fullness of meaning communicated in the original language. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but rather to be changed forever. Our Lenten observances are designed so that we might leave behind an old way of living or acting in order to embrace new life in Christ. So the question we come to Lent with is “What course correction would help me to be a more loving person? What can I change in my life to be more like Jesus?
Fr. Richard Rohr writes “Jesus quite clearly believed in change. In fact, the first public word out of his mouth was the Greek imperative verb metanoia which literally translates as ‘change your mind’ or ‘go beyond your mind.’ To change the way we understand or think about something. Unfortunately, in the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the word into the Latin word for “repent” or “do penance” which initiated a host of moralistic connotations that have colored our Christian understanding of the Gospels ever since. The word metanoia, however, is talking about a primal change of mind, worldview, or your way of processing – and only by corollary about a specific change in behavior…Jesus invariably emphasized inner motivation and intention in his moral teaching” and we miss the point if we simply “change a few externals while our underlying worldview remains narcissistic and self-referential.” (Rohr, The Universal Christ, an EXCELLENT choice for sacred reading this Lent).
We all struggle with imperfection, but this is not some kind of design error on God’s part, but rather is a gift; a reminder of our oneness – that we need one another. That is why we all celebrate when just one of us is lost and then found, because truly it is part of ourselves that was lost; an essential part of the body of Christ that has been restored so we can continue moving together towards the fullness of creation – a time when “God will be all and all” and we will be whole once again.
For Jesus, sin means alienation – alienation from our best selves– from the community who loves and needs us, and from God – who we often distance ourselves from because we envision God as an over-scrupulous, exacting, harsh judge up in the sky taking notes on our every misstep.
Jesus is trying to teach us that sin isn’t about individually following rules and regulations to the letter, but rather doing something loving with our life and resisting any action that threatens this wholeness. Anything that keeps us at a distance or makes us become lost or separated. So Sin is not a lack of perfection which is related to our personal performance, but rather a lack of forgiveness, inclusiveness and acceptance.
In short, “Jesus was a man of reconciliation in a world that had accepted, and even gloried in division, in proclaiming who was an insider and who was an outsider, the clean and the unclean. He was struggling to bring together people that others were struggling to keep apart.” (Shea)
Dr. Barbara Reid says that the joy of repentance found in Jesus’ parables doesn’t come from us shamefully beating our breasts and entering into some harsh acts of atonement, or even to apologize to God for our misconduct; this isn’t what God is asking of us at all. Rather, Jesus is simply inviting us to change our mind. He is trying to teach us about God and convince us that God is not AT ALL demanding any kind of harsh repentance or even a request for forgiveness. It’s automatically given. God simply wouldn’t be God if He were as small and exacting as we are sometimes.
Rather, it is God’s joy to bring us home and restore wholeness to us and our community – this is the true fulfillment of Jesus’ dream for us. God in God self is mercy and there will be nothing but rejoicing on God‘s part if we change our mind and believe fully – grabbing the truth with both hands – that God loves and forgives us without boundary or breaking point. Without conditions or demands, so that we all may be whole – together in mind in spirit once again. This is the nature of true repentance.
John Shea writes “God desires unity and rejoices more when a wholeness is approached by the inclusion of what was formerly excluded than when an incompleteness, even when it is a righteous incompleteness, remains even one short.”
So true repentance begins with God searching for us when we are lost and offering us the free gift of forgiveness and restoration to the community and our work is to “change our mind” to truly believe in this kind of merciful God, have the courage to accept acceptance and then, living out of this grace, offer OUR love and forgiveness as freely as we have received it.