The Gospel reading from The Common Lectionary for yesterday is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. The verses in the middle which are skipped begin as follows:
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.... -- Matt: 11:20-22 (verses 23 and 24 are more of the same kind of warning, so for brevity's sake I will not copy all of them.)
Why, I wonder, are these verses on repentance skipped? The Common Lectionary selections are determined by a group of Christian leaders from all the mainline churches that use them, which includes Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others. These readings are not skipped in the daily lectionary, which I think are put together by the same group of people; they were assigned a few days ago. Perhaps that is why they are skipped over now. But most people who attend these mainline churches only hear the readings on a Sunday morning. So, for a large percentage of Christians, these verses about repentance are not heard.
However, by skipping them, we lose a great deal of meaning behind the words of Jesus that follow, which were read on Sunday. Jesus says, Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)
When we remove the call of repentance form the words of comfort, the meaning of what remains is more superficial, and more confusing, if not lost altogether. When I read only the words of comfort, Jesus seems to be telling me to hand over to him all my worldly cares, all the things that I have to do in the day that cause me stress. Just hand them over to Jesus and he will take care of them for me, so that I can rest. Jesus isn't asking for much; we have it easy. It almost sounds as if Jesus is saying, Here is my peace, given freely, go and be free of all cares.
But when you include verses 20-24, you see that Jesus is actually saying, "Repent and I will give you rest." True rest comes with a unburdened heart, a forgiven heart, one which has been opened, examined, and judged truthfully. Jesus calls people to do this, repeatedly, for themselves, throughout his ministry: Look at you life honestly, repent of your transgressions against others, and I will take your burdens, I will forgive your transgressions. Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Repentance alone leads to true reconciliation with our neighbor and with God, and brings us peace.
So why do we skip this crucial connection? Do we no longer need to repent? Are we all good enough as it is? Or are we simply afraid of the language of repentance?
One of my favorite novels is "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte. I watched the latest movie version of it last night, and was struck anew by the themes of repentance and forgiveness in the story. Clearly, the language of repentance of the past went too far in the other direction, preaching hellfire and damnation to every soul that lived, even the innocent. But that was not Jesus' message, either.
Coincidentally, I have been reading for the last week or so, a book titled, "Embodying Forgiveness," by L. Gregory Jones. Mr. Jones argues that the church has, over the centuries, slowly lost its emphasis on practices of repentance, confession, and forgiveness. Skipping over Matt. 11:20-24, seems like a perfect example of this. Mr. Jones believes one reason is that the language of therapy has replaced the language of the gospel. Clergy, for example, who sin, are sent to counseling, not to confession. Mr. Jones, also believes a climate of hopelessness prevails in the midst of the overwhelming wickedness we see around the world. Where do we begin to confess all our transgressions? Better to just try to forget about it, maybe it will all go away.
Whatever the reason, I wonder what has been lost as a result of this de-emphasis on repentance? Mr. Jones argues that, since people no longer hear the call for heartfelt, self-examination from the pulpit, the church [and, I would add, God] is seen to offer very little to people who are in serious darkness. God's forgiveness is not sought. The soul is never truly unburdened. And so, darkness continues unabated, and in some souls, overwhelms. Could a return to honest, humble, heartfelt self-examination and repentance be the cure?
Dear God, may all who live in darkness turn to you with open hearts and open minds, laying all before you. You who wait with open arms for all who are soul-burdened, grant us your peace. Love always, Pam