I grew up thinking that repentance was mostly rooted in feeling bad, maybe even guilty, about some thing I had done. I had plenty of practice! Often the threat of eternal damnation spurred the appropriate feelings for which repentance was the response and solution – and that usually meant ‘going forward’ at the end of a Sunday night sermon and spending enough time at the altar to alleviate the bad feelings.
In the last few years that I have realized that my understanding of repentance had more to do with not feeling bad any more – than with with any necessary change in behavior. It was possible for me to get good at feeling bad. And that was good enough. In fact, sometimes feeling bad produced an emotional reaction that I mistook for the assurance that God had forgiven me. So the strategy was to feel bad enough for long enough for whatever it was that I had done. And that was repentance. Implicit was the idea that, perhaps, I shouldn’t keep doing bad things – but changed behavior was less the content and more the occasional outcome of repentance.
It was a bit of a shock to discover that repentance, as it is used in the Bible, has to do with a change of behavior arising from a change of mind – and that any feelings are more about the desire for the new than they are about shame over the old. Repentance is about living a new way in the light of a new reality. Jesus called his listeners to repent – to live a new way – as an appropriate and necessary response to the fact that the Kingdom of God was now within their grasp. When John challenges his audience to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” it is interesting to notice how he responds to questions from the crowd concerning what that fruit might look like.
He begins by suggesting that radical generosity is the first demonstration of authentic repentance. “If you have two cloaks, and another has none… do the math! And the same with food…” A repentant tax collector should only collect the amount they are authorized – and not use their position to become wealthy. The soldier under force of repentance should be content with their salary – and not use their cover of authority either to extort money from people, or to make false accusations. Nothing very revolutionary! Or is it?
Imagine what a community shaped by this ordinary repentance – a community made up of people simply doing their jobs, and not taking whatever advantage their position afforded them to get ahead at cost to others.
John thinks that is repentance – living a new way in the light of the Kingdom’s coming. I think he might be on to something.