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WHAT DOES CHRISTIAN REPENTANCE MEAN?
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Sunday, Third Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016
Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15, Psalm 102, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12, Luke 13:1-9


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"There were some present at that time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish'" (Luke 13:1-3).


Jesus told his audience that they were in danger if they do not repent of their sins, that is, they must change their whole orientation and turn away from their sins. If they do not repent, they will perish like those whom Pilate killed while they were offering their sacrifices. They should not console themselves with the thought that this happened to those people and not to us because they were far worse sinners than we are. So we are safe, because we are not nearly as bad as they are. Rather they should see that disaster as a warning for themselves, that unless they repent, they too will suffer the same destruction.


Jesus tells his hearers that those whom Pilate killed were no worse sinners then they are. They are just as bad as those whom Pilate killed. So the conclusion should be, we better change and stop sinning, or else the same thing will happen to us.


The message to us is that we too must stop sinning. The good news of God's salvation in Jesus Christ is that we must have faith, we must believe in the gospel, that is, the good news that God saves from their sins all who believe in Christ, because their faith enables the merits of his death on the cross to be applied to them. Christ's death was for our sins. "Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3) to make reparation for them (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2). He took our sins upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) and suffered their punishment for us. He did penance for our sins on the cross to free us from our sins and remove the pain of guilt from us.


What Christ asks of us is to stop sinning, turn away from our sins in deep sorrow for them, and change our whole orientation; and then turn toward God and put our faith in Christ. This is conversion, which has two parts: 1) turning away from sin, and 2) turning toward God. We call the first part "repenting," and the second part "believing." So Jesus says, "Repent (metanoeite) and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).


Our English word "repent" is based on the Latin paenitentiam agere ("do penance"), which is not at all the meaning of the Greek word for "repent" (metanoeo), meaning, "change your mind," or of the Hebrew word for "repent" (shub), meaning, "turn," that is, turn from your sins. Jesus is not calling us to "do penance" for our sins to make reparation for them to satisfy divine justice, for that is impossible for human beings to do. Only the incarnate Son of God could do that. And that is precisely why God sent him into the world, namely to do just that. And he did it by suffering and dying on the cross to make reparation for our sins that did satisfy divine justice on our behalf.


What Christ is calling us to do when he says, "Repent (metanoeite) and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15), is change your mind and your whole orientation, turn from your sins, and put your faith in the good news, that is, in the gospel message about his saving death on the cross for your forgiveness, justification, salvation, and new life in God. Only Christ can "do penance" to make just reparation for our sins.


Once we change our orientation, stop sinning, and believe in Christ, then what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to go into a long - even life-long - process of trying to do the impossible, namely make reparation before God for our past sins to finally pay our debt of punishment for them and make just satisfaction that will satisfy divine justice? I don't think so. First of all, that is impossible. It can't be done. Second, that is precisely what Christ came to do; and he has already done it. It has already been done by him for us, and has already been applied to us through our faith. And third, Jesus' call to "repent (metanoeite) and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15) does not linguistically mean "do penance" at all, but rather "change your mind" (metanoeite).


So what are we supposed to do after we turn from our sins, stop sinning, and believe in Christ? Today's parable about the unfruitful fig tree gives us the answer (Luke 13:6-9), namely we are to bear fruit, or else we will be cut down, like a fig tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down. What is the fruit we are to bear? Good works and a life of self-denial. If we do not do good works and deny ourselves worldly pleasures for the love of God, we will be cut down.


Our good works are the fruit of Christ's justifying us by his work on the cross, which we receive through our faith in Christ, "apart from works" (Romans 4:6). Our justification and forgiveness is Christ's work, not ours, and faith is what receives it. That is why St. Paul never tires of telling us, "We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28), "for no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law" (Romans 3:20; see also Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:9; and Titus 3:5).


Our good works are the visible evidence that we have true justifying faith and that we really have been justified; and they help us grow in progressive sanctification, and will be rewarded by God at the final judgment (Matthew 16:27) as the visible evidence of our faith, which has justified us "apart from works" (Romans 4:6). So our justification, which comes to us by faith without works, does not remain without works if it is true justifying faith; rather, it does good works. And if we don't do good works, we will be cut down, like a fig tree that does not produce good fruit.


But why does Jesus tell us to practice self-denial, when only his sacrifice on the cross is able to make reparation for our sins? Why does Jesus say, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24 NKJV)? He says this because he wants us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), and not divide our heart with other things, other pleasures, obsessions, passing loves, fine dining, etc. Self-denial is the way we grow in the love of God and in our ability to experience his love in our heart.


The delicate and subtle splendor of Christ's righteousness shining in our heart, illuminating us from within, is easily drowned out by worldly pleasures, obsessions, passing loves, etc. Therefore we are to live a simple life, serving only one master (Matthew 6:24), having only one treasure (Matthew 6:19-21). We are to sell all we have to have enough money to buy the field containing the buried treasure (Matthew 13:44). This means that we are to renounce everything we have to obtain the buried treasure, which is the kingdom of God in our heart (Luke 17:21), union with God in love, and the experience of God's love in our heart. We are to renounce all in order not to drown out the subtle splendor of God's love in our heart.


In order to be more sensitive to and receptive of the subtle splendor of God's righteousness and love in our heart, Jesus tells us, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). This is why he tells us to save our life by losing it in this world for his sake; and not lose our life by trying to save it in a worldly way, filling ourselves with worldly pleasures, entertainments, fine dining, and obsessions (Mark 8:35).


For this same reason St. John says, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). Love for the world divides our heart from a pure love of God and dissipates our affective energy in many useless and harmful directions.


This is why St. James says, "Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). Therefore we are to practice self-denial in order to love God with an undivided heart and so be better able to experience his love in our heart. That is why we are to live a simple life, an ascetical life, a life of self-denial.


But why, then, does St. Paul say, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24)? Surely he does not mean that something is lacking in Christ's suffering to redeem me, to make reparation for my sins, to satisfy divine justice. Christ's sufferings are sufficient to make reparation for all the sins of the world. I think what St. Paul means here is that Christ's sufferings are complete in themselves for the expiation of and propitiation for our sins, but he still needs our sufferings for the extension in the world of what he has perfectly completed for us on the cross; that is, Christ makes use of his twelve missionary apostles and of us to go out into the world and preach this good news of salvation to others, and we will suffer persecution and other inconveniences in doing so. That is how our suffering completes Christ's suffering on the cross for the salvation of the world; not that Christ's suffering was somehow incomplete, and so we have to do penance to make up for the reparation for our sins that his suffering was unable to do.


So our justification comes by faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6), because of the work of Christ on the cross. But once justified by faith, "apart from works" (Romans 4:6), we then must make a real effort to bear fruit in good works, or we will be cut down, like a tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down (Luke 13:6-9). Our good works and self-denial will help us to grow in holiness. And by growing in holiness (progressive sanctification) we assimilate and integrate into our personality and whole way of life the salvation we have received. This is a life-long process of growth as "new men" in Christ (Ephesians 4:22-24). We are to grow more and more into the "new man" that Christ has made us by his death on the cross.

 

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