“Repent” is one of those words that’s been lost in the noise of religious culture. It’s a word you hear from sweaty-faced TV preachers pleading for your moral conscience. It’s a word you see written on cardboard signs and held by self-appointed prophets at the stadium or the airport. It’s a word you might assume to mean: “Better get your act together!”
We return now to Luke’s biography of Jesus. Earlier we’d looked at the way Jesus challenged his audience by saying that just because tragedy happens, it doesn’t mean the victims “had it coming.” We’d talked about how when we read tragic newspaper headlines—like the recent shooting in an Orlando nightclub—it’s tempting to think through who we can blame, or find ways to distance ourselves from the moral complexity of the situation.
Jesus tells his audience—then and now—that we are all called to “repent:”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
Even here we see the themes we’ve been discussing all week. Justice is coming, but the greater aim is for restoration and mercy.
This parable underscores Jesus’ command in verses 3 and 4, earlier: “unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”
What does it mean to “repent?” As we hinted at above, we might assume that “repentance” is about making a change in behavior. We cease doing bad things, and we start doing good things. We stir up a feeling of being really, really sorry for what we’ve done, with sour-faced promises to “never do it again,” as if we’re a pack of unruly middle schoolers and God is the principal, standing with his arms folded.
“Repent” means to change, to turn. The Greek word was even used by the “college professors” of the ancient world to refer to the way a character would change his course in the middle of a story.
The same is true for the Christian life, but if we look at the total scope of Christian faith, we must conclude that we change not our habits, but our hearts. “Our hearts are idol factories,” John Calvin famously wrote. And he’s right. We have the tendency to love things more than we love God. Therefore, what the Bible calls “sin” is really just a form of dis-ordered love. If I love money more than God, I may become a prisoner of greed. If I love sex more than God, then I become a prisoner of lust. And so on.
We can easily imagine how the posture of our hearts directly results in the actions of our hands, can’t we? So it’s not enough to change the externals—we have to look at what’s underneath.
“Repent,” then, is about re-ordering our loves. It’s about placing God back at the apex of our hearts; it’s about seeing his beauty, his goodness and allowing his character to stir our affections so that we are gradually transformed into the image of his Son.
Truthfully, this is a daily task. As more things flood our attention, our hearts are constantly being shaped and molded into what Paul called “the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). The reason the Church has emphasized spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible study, etc.) is that these practices help us re-order our lives (and our loves).
This means that “repentance” isn’t just for the “lost” people “out there.” It’s for all of us, all of those who seek to continually exult the name of Jesus, and see his kingdom as supremely valuable over every earthly empire.