“Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”
The theme of repentance seems to make this passage pretty perfect for the season of Lent, after all repentance is a key part of the Lenten journey. We should all be taking stock and turning our lives back towards God. We are not new to the idea of being penitent, repentance is integrated into our liturgy, we are used to acknowledging that we are in fact sinful and need God’s forgiveness; this is nothing new to us. And yet when I first read this passage I cringed, I did not want to talk about repentance. And the more I thought about the topic the more uncomfortable I got, and the more questions I had about it. The more I realized I didn’t know, didn’t really know what it meant to repent. So like a good Seminarian I started with the Greek. The Greek word used for repent implies a change of one’s mind for the better, and a turning away from sin. This is all well and good, but still the definition seemed cold and the message, ‘repent or die’ seemed particularly severe.
I couldn’t help but think: As Christians, surely our minds have already been changed, and God already knows our sins, what good can really come of exposing my weaknesses to God when he already knows what they are? And besides we do the general confession every Sunday, surely that is enough. Perhaps this Gospel reading just doesn’t apply to us, that can happen, right? All of this went through my head and still this passage gnawed at me, obviously I wasn’t thinking about it the right way.
As I turned the problem over and over in my head I started to think about the stories of repentance in the Gospel, and the one story that really stuck out to me was the story in Luke of the penitent woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. If you don’t remember the story, it goes something like this: while Jesus was eating at the house of a Pharisee, a woman, a known sinner rushes in and starts crying on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, and everyone judges her except for Jesus who praises her for her faith. There was something about that story that I felt had something to say about the nature of repentance, though I still couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what that ‘something’ was.
I continued to struggle with this topic up until a couple of days ago when I got the opportunity to hear a woman by the name of Brene Brown speak. Brene Brown is a research professor known for her work in studying shame and vulnerability. In the course of her research she collected thousands of pieces of data and was able to make some interesting discoveries about how vulnerability works in our lives. As I listened to her speak it started to occur to me that maybe somehow this was the missing piece to the repentance puzzle that I was looking for. As it turns out vulnerability is exceedingly important to so many aspects of our lives. Love, belonging, trust, creativity, joy: all the things that we want in our lives require of us the one thing that many of us won’t allow ourselves to do: be vulnerable.
One of the things she said stood out to me in particular and that was, “In order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen.” And I wondered, ‘how often do I really let myself be seen by God, or by anyone for that matter?’ While I know that God sees everything and knows me better than I know myself, there is still a part of me that thinks I can hold something back. Sins I don’t want to confess because I am not ready to stop doing them or I find them too shameful, fears and doubts that I know I shouldn’t have, imperfections that I don’t want anyone to see, not even God. It occurred to me that there are whole swaths of my life that I still refuse to turn toward God because to do so would be to allow myself to be exposed. In trying to protect myself am I denying myself a fuller relationship with God and with others as well?
It was then that I looked again at the penitent woman in Luke, in that moment when she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them clean with her hair, she was utterly exposed and yet not at all ashamed. She was filled with love because she fully knew that she was loved. She allowed herself to be vulnerable and discovered God’s love for her in a way that many of us struggle with constantly.
Perhaps this is what Jesus wants when he tells the crowds to repent. If Brene Brown is right, and I think she is, then we cannot even begin to truly be in relationship with God, much less be signs of God’s love in the world if we are not willing to have the courage to truly be who we are rather than what we think we should be.
I don’t say all of this to take away the severity of what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. The fact is that death is always out there waiting for us; eventually we will all have to face our Lord and maker and answer for our half lived lives. And to be truly fruitful we need to surrender those things that we think protect us, but in actuality only serve to stunt our growth.
If the task of making yourself vulnerable seems too daunting, too insurmountable, then you are not alone, but there is hope and Jesus expresses that hope in the parable of the fig tree. Just as the gardener does not give up on the tree, nor does God give up on us, but is constantly and patiently nurturing us in our journey so that when we do finally allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable we find that we are not, after all, weakened by the vulnerability of repentance, but are given a new chance to be truly fruitful both in the world and for the world.