A New Way of Repentance, a New Covenant, and a New Hope
Remember as a kid, when you’d do something bad, probably be mean to a sibling, and your parents would make you apologize. “I’m sorry,” we’d say sheepishly, but we were only trying to get out of punishment. “Say it like you mean it,” our mothers would say in response. It’s like that.
I think what we have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re reading passages like Psalm 51, which has the whole “woe is me, we’re not worthy” with phrases like “the sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit,” which when we think about the term “broken spirit,” we say, “Whoa! Wow, no, absolutely not!” We’re here to have our spirits re-invigorated, not broken. If I set about to break your spirits, you’d run me out of town, for good reason.
But it’s more like that people will offer sacrifices of animals or money just hoping for a clean slate and avoiding the hard work of actually changing their behaviour. The sale of indulgences for instance, which ticked off Martin Luther so much: why bother taking a good hard look at yourself and making changes when you can just throw money at the problem?
And let’s pretend for a moment that the psalm was written by who it’s traditionally attributed to: David, after the prophet Nathan comes to him to condemn him for basically raping Bathsheba and having Uriah killed. It wasn’t; this probably comes from the Babylonian exile 400 years after David, but it works surprisingly well. A horrific act, by this man who was supposedly Israel’s greatest king, and one where if someone did this today, we’d demand his head on a pike.
And so, he repents, and I honestly can’t imagine a more earnest and introspective repentance that this. He is looking deep at all the hard, unpleasant truths about himself, with honesty, and with compassion. He is breaking his spirit because this spirit of pride and entitlement told him he had the right to rape a woman and murder her husband to protect himself.
Now the way we read the psalms puts the words into our mouths, and . . . I’m pretty sure most of us don’t have something quite as horrible to confess, so this is an extreme, an exaggeration of what we are called to do as Christians: know thyself. To have a spirit of introspection—to rephrase the term “broken spirit”—that acknowledges our faults, our inherent animal instincts to do destructive things, but also our strengths and our inherent goodness as children of God. Both of those things are true, and an honest spirit of introspection will acknowledge both of those.
Because, think of people who never say sorry, who never admit they are wrong, who refuse to face the consequences of their actions . . . psychologists say that narcissists are usually covering up deep insecurities, so I would say they are the ones with a truly broken spirit, but they do not offer it as a sacrifice because they are not willing to be vulnerable. God calls us into a fullness of being that means we have to move beyond that. Yeah, we have to say sorry like we mean it.
And, yes, we talk about how God is all-forgiving and loves us no matter what. That is absolutely true. My mother loves me no matter what too, but what would happen if I never said sorry or refused to face the consequences when I did something wrong? She would still love me, but things would not go so well.
This is part of being a people of faith, not works: we have to seek to change ourselves before we can change the world, because faith radiates outward and will manifest itself naturally in our actions: not in sacrifices that we make to avoid punishment, but in love.
So, just to sum up, sometimes when you’re reading the Bible, you have to translate ideas, because we read a literal translation that doesn’t take changes in culture and philosophy and human nature into account. Sin = human brokenness; broken spirit = spirit of introspection. And a host of other things. This is how we can delve into those very difficult and unpleasant passages. Taking the Bible seriously but not literally isn’t just for mythical stories about gardens and arks.
Now, to briefly tie in the reading from Jeremiah, because it’s one of my favourite readings and an important one for the Christian faith: I have to speak carefully, because there is still a people of the “old” covenant out there, and the theology of supersession has been used for many an anti-Semitic screed. But like the Jews speak of being a “chosen people,” being people of a “new covenant” isn’t the blessing we think it is. It doesn’t mean we’re the best, that we’re above and better than Jews or Muslims or atheists or anyone because we’ve found the right way. It comes with responsibility: The responsibility to live with faith and mercy, the responsibility to seek justice and resist evil, the responsibility (as I’ve said) to look deep within oneself and acknowledge out faults, and the responsibility to pick up the cross. “Those who lose their lives will save them,” says Jesus.
But it offers us a way of hope, out of an old way of sacrifices and self-hatred and saying “I’m sorry” but not really meaning it. I like this painting of Jeremiah because it has the prophet lamenting the ruin of the cities, a recurring theme in Jeremiah, but in the middle of the book comes this passage of hope. A new hope, insert Star Wars joke here.
This “no longer shall they say to one another: know the lord, for they shall all know me,” means no more pontificating, evangelism, power and abuse, hierarchies, structures, institutions, atoning, or punishment. We live into this by being a people of faith, following a new way of repentance where we are not trying to “make up” for our faults, not hating ourselves, not breaking our spirits and the spirits of others by saying, “You’re going to burn in hell unless you change your wicked ways,” but instead being a people who have the law of love written on our hearts. Jesus, talking about the new covenant, talks about forgiveness when he lifts up the cup and sharing it, feeding the hungry, and being self-giving on the cross. That cross of Jesus isn’t a punishment, Jesus isn’t being punished for the sins of humanity—that’s the medieval way of thinking I talked about last week—but is instead about bearing the pain and brokenness of the world and being in solidarity with those who suffer.
When we follow a new way of repentance, one that is about life and not death, change and resurrection instead of punishment and execution, that is how we are living as a people of a new covenant; that is how we live as people of hope. Amen.