Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Cheap Contrition and Hardened Hearts

“Rend your hearts and not your garments.”

There is a vast difference between the public displays of remorse we so regularly see in the media and actual repentance. The former is purely external and serves the purpose of notifying one’s community that the party subject to censure acknowledges his faux pas and hopes for a quick end to the unpleasantness of public disapproval so he can return to his former way of doing business as expeditiously as possible.

The latter is a matter of the heart before God.

Mealy-Mouthed Hand-Waving

Now, it may be argued that people don’t really repent in public anymore, and to a certain extent this is true, especially if we consider the tradition of Catholic confession a private matter. We rarely see a man or woman coming forward to say, “I used to cheat my customers, and I’m not going to do it anymore. In fact, if you and I have transacted business together in the last five years, please come and see me and I’ll make sure I do right by you.” Or imagine a mob enforcer coming clean in public, not via the usual means of ratting out his superiors in order to negotiate a testimony deal with the district attorney and a long-term disappearing act courtesy of the FBI, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. “Joe, I’m really sorry about breaking your leg. I’ve covered your gambling debt with my boss, and picked up the tab for your hospital stay. Can I please pay for your cab home?”

Nah, not likely.

Instead, the public displays of remorse we see are all mealy-mouthed hand-waving. Things like “If anyone is offended, then I deeply apologize” or “It was not my intention that it go as far as it did,” or even “The comments made amongst friends were taken out of context and blown out of proportion.” All of these are the real words of celebrities caught out in public. Such questionable displays of apparent guilt are less about actually repenting and more about hoping to be able to push the reset button and move on. The fact that they are full of excuses, blame, qualifications and equivocations is our first clue.

So there is a vast difference between repentance of the first sort, which follows the biblical model, and repentance of the second sort, which is not repentance at all.

Risky Repentance

The biblical sort of repentance is risky, not least because it often stands to lose its shirt. Literally. Consider the “fruits in keeping with repentance” recommended by John the Baptist:
“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”

Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
That’s not cheap contrition. These are standard first steps in embarking on a life of discipleship to Christ. “Deeds in keeping with their repentance” are an inextricable part of Paul’s gospel.

Consider Zacchaeus as a model of genuine, joyful contrition:
“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
This was all his idea, and it sounds like he was full of enthusiasm to get to it. Did he mean it? I would say he did.

Rending the Heart, Not the Garments

This type of repentance is not a matter of a few words in public to make the bad press go away. Each practical modification to the established patterns of the guilty party is costly. The tax man takes 17-20% of the average taxpayer’s income annually, but Zacchaeus’s opening bid was 50% of everything he had accumulated across his entire career. The man with two tunics who gives away one is also operating in the 50% range.

That’s downright painful. No celebrity would even contemplate this sort of practical reimbursement of injured parties, not least because it would set an intimidating precedent. It would alienate him from his peers permanently … their own show-apologies would look pathetic and phony by comparison.

But that’s the sort of thing that happens when your heart is rent rather than your garments. In the prophet Joel’s day, anyone could rip his clothes and claim to be deeply distraught. Today, anyone can take to the microphone and offer faux-contrition in front of the press corps. But a heart that is genuinely repentant and rejoices in having received the benefit of God’s forgiveness is not stingy about making reparations. It is extravagant with joy.

“Her sins, which are many, are forgiven,” said the Lord Jesus to Simon the Pharisee. How did he know? “She loved much.” The extravagance of this woman’s “deeds in keeping with repentance” demonstrated that her repentance was real and forgiveness had been received and enjoyed.

Little Love, Little Forgiveness

But then Jesus finishes with this: “But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Think about that for a moment. NOBODY has “little” to repent of. Absolutely nobody. As Paul puts it in his famous argument in Romans, “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

There are people whose throats are open graves, and there are people who have the venom of asps under their lips. There are those whose feet are swift to shed blood, and those who leave ruin and misery in their paths. There are men and women who do not know the way of peace, and more besides.

These are very obviously not all the same person. Paul quotes and paraphrases here from a combination of Psalm 14, Psalm 5, Psalm 140, Psalm 10, Isaiah 59 and Psalm 36. Clearly the writers of these unrelated Old Testament passages were not meditating on the evils of the same individual. But taken all together, Paul’s list reminds us that nobody is innocent and nobody has “little” to repent of. The human race is a mess.

A Little Generosity

Now, with respect to salvation, I cannot believe our initial lack of comprehensive awareness of the depths of our own iniquity matters all that much. What matters is that we acknowledge before God that we are sinful, both by inclination and in practice, and in need of salvation. The full extent of our depravity is rarely apparent to us until we begin to read and study the word of God. I am still discovering mine. God is remarkably generous in receiving and forgiving confessed sinners long before we have managed to clean ourselves up for him, and even before most of us have had much of a chance to check the mirror.

In this case, it was the Lord’s squeaky-clean-on-the-outside Pharisee host who was the primary target of the “he who is forgiven little, loves little” barb. Personally, I am convinced the Lord was more than a little generous with him. He quite understated the case to be made against Simon.

Simon had not demonstrated any love at all, and had therefore given no evidence whatsoever of repentance toward God. Inviting Jesus into his home was less an act of hospitality than an opportunist’s unbelieving test of the Lord’s credentials. To the extent that Simon had been forgiven anything at all, even under the Old Testament economy, he was merely nibbling away at the near-edges of his own personal ocean of iniquity.

After all, when you approach God legalistically, at best you get exactly what you have asked for. It is only when you approach him by faith that you have access to his grace.

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