Today’s Gospel reading says that John the Baptist “went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” (Lk. 3:3) John the Baptist’s reform movement is well known to us; it was one of many reform movements in Late Second Temple Judaism. Like the other reformers of the time, John the Baptist called his contemporaries to turn away from sin, turn back to God, and renew their spiritual lives.
Luke’s Gospel uses the word “repentance” as short-hand for John’s message of personal reform and religious reform. Next Sunday, we will hear John’s suggestions about how to repent. In the meantime, however, it might do us well to ponder what repentance might mean.
In each of our lives, there are traits that we prefer not to have. Some people regret their lack of certain physical traits. Others lament their inter-personal or intellectual deficiencies; still others are disappointed by their accomplishments or state in life. Does repentance mean ridding one’s life of the things one dislikes about oneself?
Each one of us can think of a list of things that we would like other people to change about themselves. The crazy-making pace of demands and activities during the holiday season make these annoying traits all the more apparent. Even friends and relatives can begin to grate on our nerves due to their normal, human failings. It would be very convenient if we could improve other people so that they wouldn’t annoy us any longer. Does repentance mean demanding other people to change in order to make themselves more agreeable to us?
A certain segment of the Catholic population attends the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently in order to confess the same minor moral failings repeatedly: failing to say one’s morning and evening prayers, being distracted during recitation of the rosary, using vulgar language, etc. There is a certain futility to repeated confession of repeated identical sins with no real emendation of one’s conduct. Does repentance mean rooting out even minor failings from one’s behavior?
The Gospels indicate that John the Baptist did not direct his hearers toward self-improvement strategies, or fixing other people’s annoying habits, or achieving moral perfection. The repentance preached by John was not, in fact, a repentance from the sins that are easy to perceive in one’s life. Rather, John preached repentance from the sins to which his hearers had grown blind. The sins that we already perceive in ourselves are, by definition, the ones that we already are attempting to reform; these don’t need repentance. The sins that we need to repent from are the ones that we commit with carefree indifference to the destructive effects they have on those around us.
According to the Scriptures, real repentance requires first that we are healed of some of our spiritual blindness. This presents an obvious problem. How can one repent of what one does not perceive? As I mentioned above, we will hear John the Baptist’s suggestions for repentance in next Sunday’s Gospel reading. The preaching of the prophets, such as John the Baptist, provides us with an awareness of sin that we cannot provide to ourselves. There is a preview in this Sunday’s Gospel of how the words of the prophets can call us to repentance.
Today’s Gospel reading paraphrases part of the preaching of Isaiah. It says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Lk. 3:4) While this might sound like a command issued to us to prepare a straight path for God’s approach, it is an example of a common figure of speech in the Scriptures. The Scriptures often use a verb form called the “divine passive voice.” The “divine passive” was a way for the Scriptural authors to refer to God without committing the grave sin of using God’s Name. Instead of saying, “God, do this for me,” the divine passive makes statements like Mary’s “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38) In this prophecy from Isaiah, it is God who is preparing the way and making the path straight.
Repentance requires us to gain new spiritual sight in order to perceive the habitual sins to which we have grown blind. This new spiritual sight can come only from God. The “prepared way” and “straight path” mentioned by Isaiah are indications of God’s power at work in our lives; these are a means by which God gives us knowledge of our sins and the ability to repent.
So-called “repentance” from the things that we’d like to change about ourselves is entirely self-serving. Demanding repentance from others amounts to usurping God’s role in redemption. Seeking after moral perfection in this world is a fool’s errand. Happily, repentance means none of these things; repentance means being led by God down a new, divinely straightened path in life.
If John the Baptist’s preaching about personal spiritual renewal and renewed religious practice sounds enticing, this might be an indication that God wants to lead you by a new path. This will only happen if you are willing to be led by God. Repentance means relinquishing our attempts at self-improvement, our attempts to improve others, and the desire to follow our own counsel; repentance means allowing ourselves to be led down the path made straight for us by God’s power.