Sometimes the message we most need to hear is the one we least want to receive. When such a message arrives, the urge can be quite strong to either fight with – or flee from – the messenger.
Maybe the messenger was your brilliant, beloved professor. Rather than offer your work the praise and affirmation you did not need, she articulated a challenging and pointed critique that she knew you could handle. In the end, this forced you to see things from a fresh perspective and inspired a more mature artistic vision. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was the time your best friend sat you down and said some things that left your heart and your ego badly bruised. In the days, weeks, or years that followed, that conversation proved to be medicine for your soul and a catalyst for new self-awareness. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was a spiritual director who gently pushed you when you were stuck in some existential swamp by persistently asking hard questions. With time, the Holy Spirit used those questions, unearthing insights that ushered in a new era in your relationship with God. But in the moment you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was a passage from the gospel like this one:
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 judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.’
Who, me? Seriously? I’m in church on a rainy Tuesday in July! Oh, no, he’s totally talking to those ancient Chorazinians and Bethsaidians who “experienced his deeds of power but did not repent.” I repent! What does this passage have to do with me?
Doubtless, some of Jesus’ original listeners had their own version of the same thought, because he persisted:
And you, Capernaum, / will you be exalted to heaven? / No, you will be brought down / to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.
Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum: all of these were towns in Jesus’ neighborhood, the region of Galilee. Jesus made Capernaum his home. These are sober, serious words aimed at people Jesus knew and interacted with. Tyre and Sidon, on the other hand, were prosperous Mediterranean port cities, Gentile bastions of idolatry and luxury. Yet there was spiritual hunger there that Jesus noticed and there were at least some residents of that region, such as the nameless Syro-phonecian woman, who were drawn to Jesus – and repented. The ears of Jesus’ listeners, intimately familiar with the rhetorical conventions of the prophets, would have been prepared when they heard Jesus’ opening words: “Woe to you!” The prophets began oracles of lament in this way, invariably denouncing Gentile kingdoms such as Babylon or Nineveh, Tyre or Sidon, or that ancient symbol of blasphemous inhospitality, Sodom. So Jesus makes use of this rhetorical flourish: to spin his listeners’ expectations on their heads. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look, neighbors. Look, those of you who think you’re on familiar terms with miracles. I need you to wake up and pay attention – not to my deeds of power, but to my invitation to repent.” We who believe we are on a first-name basis with God are right to hear Jesus speaking directly to us.
Repent is the very first word of Jesus’ public proclamation of his message. In Matthew’s fourth chapter, Jesus announces, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The most basic response to the immanent reality and new Life offered by Jesus is repentance. At its heart, repentance is not about guilt or fear, both of which stop us in our tracks. It is the recognition that we’ve gone the wrong way, and we need to turn around– the literal meaning of the Hebrew word teshuvah. The early Church father Tertullian wrote that metanoia – the Greek word commonly translated as repentance – is not primarily confession of sins but “a change of mind.”Metanoia brings larger life because it opens up a larger view and a changed perspective.
When Jesus says, “Repent,” he is not inviting us to a once-and-for-all experience. This kind of “turn around” does not inaugurate an unswerving, one-way course to God. Neither is it limited to a single liturgical season, such as Lent. Repentance is always relevant to us, because we are always in need of it. Repentance can happen any moment that we discover a need to turn around, and if we are repentant, we are ready and willing to turn at a moment’s notice throughout the length of the journey. In the ancient world, getting from one region to another on even the safest, most well-trodden roads would have been difficult and circuitous. In this context, we can appreciate anew the words of God to the prophet Isaiah: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
Repentance might involve falling to our knees and taking upon our lips words hallowed by tradition. It might involve pausing the instant we become aware that we have lost our guiding orientation toward God and an unceremonious “oops, I’m sorry.” In either case, if it is genuine, repentance will involve us intimately with others.
I think this is why Jesus says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Just as salvation is not an individual endeavor, the many turnings around all along the road to our healing and wholeness in Christ involve others. We repent of our own willful wandering and accidental missteps, but we also take ownership of our village or city, our family, tribe, or race, and our country. We acknowledge our membership in the human species and our inestimable debt to non-human life, beginning with the river nearest to home and the birds that nest in the nearest park. What we do and what we fail to do intimately impacts these nearest circles of belonging. If we have any hope of changing, we must begin with them. We slowly zoom the camera lens outward, pausing often to feel the pangs of conscience that remind us we have hearts of flesh. Finding our place in a labyrinth traced by so many wrong turns, we discover that, in and through them, the Holy Spirit has traced a million routes home to the heart of God.
If we take seriously Jesus’ words about Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, our best teachers may be those we least expect, those farthest from our circles of kin and affiliation. The posture of repentance may best be modeled for us by Christians whose theology or worship style we find embarrassing or unsophisticated, but whose hearts are on fire for Jesus. Or by those outside the Church whose lives of humble service and sacrifice speak volumes of praise to God. Or by the unrelenting will to live with a clear conscience demonstrated by indigenous peoples who refuse to sell their ancestral lands.
One day, we may find ourselves at the right hand of Jesus, uttering with him an unexpected benediction: Blessed are you, Tyre! Blessed are you, Sidon! For you have taught Chorazin and Bethsaida to return to God and live.
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