Sunday, November 26, 2017

No Need of Repentance

There's a turn of phrase that Jesus uses in the Gospels that fascinates me. On numerous occasions, Jesus refers to "persons which need no repentance" (for instance, Luke 15:7). Whenever Jesus is quoted as saying this -- and he does in numerous contexts throughout the Gospels -- it is always to contrast such people with repentant sinners. It took a while for this to sink in, but I've gradually realized that Jesus is teaching through irony whenever he uses this phrase. Of course there is no such thing as a person who has "no need of repentance." Of course plenty of people both then and now think they have no need of repentance. And until we get that we do, the whole import of these teachings will be lost on us.

Consider, for instance, a reading of the parable of the prodigal son that has become popular in Mormon circles. I can't help but think that many Mormons, when they read this parable, just can't help but identify with the Elder Brother. They think of themselves as the righteous faithful who have labored in the heat of the day and deserve all that the Father hath because they've earned it. And so they've read this parable in a way that actually completely undermines it by suggesting that of course the Father was happy to see his wayward son return, and so threw a nice party for him, but the prodigal son still has no inheritance any more. Nope, he spent it on prostitutes and wild living. It's gone now, and the Elder Brother is the real winner in this story and still gets "all that the father hath."

The whole thrust of Jesus' teaching was to push us to see the ways in which we are ALL the prodigal son. The account of this parable in Luke is set in a context of Jesus condemning pride and self-righteousness, all of which are the primary obstacle preventing us from seeing our need to repent. In the story of the prodigal son (we'll call him P.S. for short), P.S. acquires two qualities that Jesus presents as essential for salvation: humility ("I am no more worthy") and a desire to serve ("make me as one of thy hired servants"). The Elder Brother (or E.B. for short) has the latter quality of a desire to serve, but is utterly lacking in the former quality of humility. He is judgmental and has no compassion for his little brother. E.B.'s lack of humility actually reveals the one quality he does have as self-serving. And that grasping and lack of humility block him from entering into the Kingdom! In many of Jesus' parables, the coming Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a great feast. And Jesus says of E.B.: "He was angry and would NOT GO IN." The Father has to plead with him to enter, to remind him of the qualities that would allow him too to be saved: compassion, forgiveness and humility.

Many of us live in a religious culture marked by privilege. In that cultural context we prefer to think of ourselves as always good, always righteous. But I am convinced that failure is essential to growth. Did P.S. screw up? Heck yeah. But lessons learned the hard way are usually the most indelible ones. And what P.S. became as a result of those hard lessons is what we all need to become, regardless of the specifics of the path by which we become, namely, humble, compassionate, and forgiving. Those are the qualities that will unlock the Kingdom to us.

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