The Word Among Us

September 2005 Issue

The Mystery of Repentance

The Key to a Fruitful Life

Do it or else! How many parents have felt compelled to issue such a threat to their children? While speaking in love, these parents know that they must be firm as well. They know that an important issue is at stake—something that will have an impact on the future of their child, and they want to make their point clearly and forcefully.

Contrast this tone of urgency from the concerned parents with the general tendency in the world to minimize the impact—or even the reality—of sin. And one of the saddest consequences of this tendency is that the need for personal repentance has been minimized. As a result, many people walk around with sins on their consciences—sins that darken their experience of Jesus' love and blind them to the life of joy and purpose that God has in store for all of us.

But as blinded as we may be—both to our own sin and to the life Jesus is offering us—God sees very clearly. Day after day, he calls out to us, inviting us to repentance—not because he wants to punish us or smother us with guilt but because he wants to set us free.

To help us get a clearer sense of the importance that Jesus ascribes to sin and repentance, let's look at his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9.

A Two-Edged Parable. According to the story, a man owned a fig tree that simply was not bearing any figs. Deciding that the tree was worthless, he asked his gardener to cut it down. The gardener, however, had pity on the tree and bargained with the owner. Even though the tree had been barren for so long, he asked for one more year. He promised to do whatever was necessary to make the tree fruitful. Then, if it was still barren one year later, he would cut it down.

As he did with so many other stories he told, Jesus gave this parable a two-edged meaning. On one hand, the story emphasizes God's mercy and patience. Like the gardener in the parable, Jesus too is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Psalm 103:8). At the same time, Jesus used this parable as a warning.

Like the concerned parents speaking very directly with their child, Jesus warns us because he loves us. And like the merciful gardener vowing to take extra care of the barren fig tree, Jesus will go out of his way to care for us. While he was on the earth, he preached and taught, healed and delivered, and even died on a cross. Today, he is still with us as we pray, as we receive his body and blood, and as we repent. He is with us, showing us the way to become like him and manifest his love and glory to the world.

Why is Jesus so insistent? Why all the warnings? Because he knows that the kingdom of God will come one day, and with it God's judgment. And then, those who have not borne any fruit "worthy of repentance" will have to answer to God for their spiritual barrenness (Luke 3:8). And so every day, he calls out to all who are willing to listen, urging them to be pruned and warning them to turn away from sin and to turn back to the Father and to bear fruit.

A Mixed Bag. As we look at Jesus' call to repentance, we should be clear about one key point: Repentance is an ongoing process. It is not something we do only once and then move on with our lives. Listen to St. Paul's warning to the believers in Corinth. As he wrote to them, he recounted parts of Israel's history, highlighting how the Israelites were not always the most pleasing to God. They may have all been "baptized" into a covenant relationship with the Lord, and God may have faithfully fed them with food and water, but their actions did not always reflect the favor God had shown them 
(1 Corinthians 10:1-6). They didn't always bear the kind of fruit God was looking for.

Just so, Paul told the Corinthians that in their own way they too were repeating the same behavior. It seems paradoxical at first: The Corinthians were very spiritual people. They were unsurpassed in their enthusiasm for the things of God, and they were lacking in no spiritual gift whatever. And yet they also had unrepented sin in their midst: a couple in an incestuous relationship, factions and divisions within their church, a callous disregard for the poor, and even active homosexuality.

How could this be? How could such blessings coexist with such sin? The only real answer we can arrive at is that God is incredibly merciful. Yes, he condemns sin of every kind. Yet at the same time, he continues to pour out grace upon grace, hoping that those trapped in sin will be moved to repentance and restoration.

The parable of the prodigal son helps drive this point home—especially in the character of the prodigal's older brother (Luke 15:11-32). There is no doubt that this son was with his father and enjoying life under his father's protection and care. There is no doubt, too, that he was a hard-working, dedicated member of the family. Yet despite all these blessings, this son was unable to share in his father's joy when his wayward brother came home. Instead, he became bitter, judgmental, and jealous. He appears to have had a mixture of good and bad, of light and darkness, within him, and his reaction to his brother's return simply highlighted this mixture.

Like the older brother and the believers in Corinth, we too may find a mixture within our hearts—especially if we are not seeking repentance and reconciliation on a regular basis. We may even be receiving the Eucharist in good conscience and be out of touch with the ways that bitter, jealous, or self-righteous thoughts are influencing our words and actions.

The Superficial Reveals the Deep. While the older brother's reaction may appear to be sudden, it's more likely that he held these judgmental and self-centered views and opinions long before his troubled brother ever came home. These deep-seated attitudes needed only this one bit of news for them to come raging to the forefront of his mind. And once they were released, they clouded his perception of his father, his brother, even of his own place of honor in the family.

Does this sound familiar? If we were to look at some of the things that cause us to become upset or troubled, we may find a similar pattern at work in us. Upon close examination, what appears to be an isolated response to an isolated event—even one that happens just a few moments after receiving Jesus at the altar or after a time of prayer—is revealed to be a symptom of a deeper mind-set that is out of order and in need of repentance. Perhaps self-righteousness or the desire to justify ourselves makes us defensive when things do not go as we expect. Or perhaps the envy that we display in a given situation is rooted in selfishness, a bruised ego, or an unfair judgment against someone else.

We all know that when we act in a way that is contrary to Christ's teachings, we need to repent. Yet it is just as vital that we pay attention to why we have sinned. Very often, the Holy Spirit will use these sinful reactions to help give us a closer look at the way sin is still working in our hearts. He is not half as interested in the isolated response as he is in the underlying sins and the root causes that motivate them.

It's this awareness of the deeper sins within us that is at the heart of metanoia, the Greek word for repentance. Metanoia means a change of mind, a change on a fundamental level. It means repenting not only of individual actions but of basic attitudes of sin as well. It means asking God to give us the grace to place Jesus at the center of our hearts and minds so that none of these underlying attitudes can ever take control again.

The prodigal son's brother needed to repent for his superficial actions, but he also needed to repent for the deep-rooted drives of selfishness that caused him to act as he did. Likewise, God wants to give us the grace to repent for our individual sins and to take on a new outlook on life. He wants to teach us how to see ourselves and those around us through God's eyes. And as we see life through God's eyes, we will begin to look beyond the superficial sins we commit and recognize the need for a deeper and more life-changing repentance. And as a result, superficial answers and superficial repentance will give way to transformed hearts and renewed minds.

Fruit That Will Last. Jesus' parable of the fig tree is a warning that our heavenly Father expects us to produce fruit—whether in service, in evangelism, or in intercessory prayer. Paul's message to the Corinthians is a warning that we can miss out on intimacy with God unless we address the deep-rooted mind-sets that are opposed to him.

Through the gift of repentance, we can all receive spiritual power that cleanses us, restores us to God, and moves us to serve him with our lives. That's true metanoia. And that's how we can bear fruit that will last.