Several years ago, I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston with Leroy and my daughter, visiting the historic sites of that great city. We arrived at Brimstone Corner on Boston Common, right across from the Park Street Congregational Church. The reference to brimstone, as in “fire and brimstone” goes back to eighteenth century preachers like George Whitfield who addressed 23,000 people on that spot and Jonathan Edwards whose famous and terrifying sermon was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Today Brimstone Corner is popular with street preachers. During our visit, one such gentleman was wearing a sandwich sign with a picture of Jesus and large letters spelling out the word “Repent”. He was debating some Mormon missionaries while handing out leaflets to passersby. In the middle of this chaotic scene was a young woman holding up her own, hand-lettered cardboard sign that simply read “Free Hugs”. Leroy stepped into the crowd and I saw him looking back and forth like he was trying to make a decision and then finally approached the woman and gratefully received his free hug. What would your choice be?
The reading from Jonah is all about repentance: the reversal by the people of Ninevah as they chose a different path and avoided the destruction promised by God through the prophet. The story in Matthew isn’t quite as onerous, but tells of a similar change of direction. Jesus knew how to tell a good story. This one in particular, in the form of a parable, is only one paragraph long, but is nevertheless one of my favorites. It reminds us that our actions are more important, ultimately, than our words.
In the story, Jesus addressed a largely religious crowd of people who were so certain that they were in a good place with God that they missed one opportunity after another to make things right.
Of the words that doesn’t often slip into our United Church of Christ lexicon of approved verbiage is “Repentance.” In a way, that’s too bad, since it is a common word in Scripture and it has a richness and practicality to it that we too often miss.
While the book of Jonah repeatedly uses the word “repent”, the Matthew story uses a translation of that word that makes sense for the context and I think helps us understand it better. After Jesus’ short story, he addressed the religious listeners who had resisted the message of John the Baptist and said “You did not change your minds and believe.” The act of changing one’s mind is in fact repentance.
Is changing your mind a good thing or a bad thing? It really depends, doesn’t it, on the circumstance. It also depends on the perspective of those who observe that changing of the mind or who are affected by it.
Often, the act of changing ones’ mind is seen as indecisiveness. We know the statement “a woman’s prerogative is to change her mind,” is not only sexist, but it generally expressing the mixed feelings people have when someone changes their mind. It can make us uncomfortable or frustrate us.
Jesus spoke negatively when he said “You did not change your mind and believe.” To turn that around, a positive and hopeful statement would be “You did change your mind and you believed.” The idea here is that our beliefs only have substance when they are reflected in action. And the action we are talking about today is the ability and the willingness to change one’s mind when it is right and necessary to do.
Let’s look at this story a little closer. One man. Two sons. Both are told by their father to go into the family’s vineyard to work for the day. One defied his father’s instruction and said “No.” The other son agreed to his father’s instruction and he said “Yes.” What really happened, though, is that the son who said “no” changed his mind and went into the vineyard to work. The son who said “yes” didn’t follow through. Jesus simply tells us that he did not go.
After telling the story, Jesus turned to those who were listening. Often Jesus related a parable and let it stand on its own without explanation. This time he decided some explanatory words were necessary. We know from earlier in chapter 21 that the particular listeners on this occasion were the chief priests and the elders of the people. They were actually gathered inside the temple as Jesus talked. They had just been strongly challenging Jesus on the authority of his words. All of this was happening on Monday of Holy Week, in other words just four days before the crucifixion. He was not mincing words or holding anything back as he the time to get his message across was becoming very short.
Jesus took that opportunity to speak deeply offensive and scandalous words to the religious leaders. He actually had the gall as he spoke to them in the temple to say that the greatly despised tax collectors and the deeply shamed prostitutes would enter God’s kingdom before they would. These are the kinds of words that could get you killed back then and they did. Jesus wasn’t just trying to make a judgment about who is in and who is out in God’s realm, though. He was making an important point which was also the intent of Jonah and all the other prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus stood in that prophetic tradition by calling on people to change their minds. In fact, right there in that holy place with all those holy people he said that it is the act of refusing to change one’s mind that keeps people from experiencing what God most wants for them.
Jonah was given a job that he hated. He was told to preach to people he didn’t like and give them a message they didn’t want. He thought it was pointless, because the people of Ninevah were so far down the road of sin that they would never return. He knew they would never change and that their destruction was assured. What a surprise when they took him seriously! When the people repented of their sin, the Bible actually says that “God changed God’s mind about the calamity that had been previously promised.” Can you imagine that? It sounds here like even God is willing to consider new information and determine a new future.
In the Gospels, Zacchaeus was determined to take money unfairly from the people – he was one of those tax-collectors Jesus mentioned in the Matthew text – but when he met Jesus he changed his mind about what was just and what was right, and he took a new direction.
The Apostle Paul oversaw the deaths of Christians because he was certain that they were agitators for an evil cause, until God intervened in his life and he saw Jesus through new eyes. He changed his mind.
John Newton was a Englishman in the 18th century who became very rich through the triangle trade, selling human beings into slavery. He wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” after he came to see Africans as humans and slavery as unjust. He changed his mind.
This past week has seen some of the most vigorous debate in years on the matter of racism. Some people are sure that kneeling on a football field disrespects our flag and national anthem. Others see that as blindness to white privilege and denial of the atrocities affecting the black community. I see Colin Kaepernick and others as modern day Jonah’s calling for our nation to repent of our original sin of racism. Will we do so?
Many are suffering today in Puerto Rico. Once again, a humanitarian crisis has become a political mess that pits people against one another. The brave and clear words of Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz were a call to repentance. Will our president and our nation respond to the crisis with decisive, bold action and not mere words?
Repentance is about choosing a better way. That generally happens after serious reflection and it requires being open to new information and different possibilities.
It really is a remarkable thing, I think, that people do change their minds and their direction in life-changing ways since there are such powerful forces trying to prevent it. Holding on to power or position or friends or trying to acquire those makes it difficult to stand for what is right. The embarrassment of essentially saying “I was wrong” by changing one’s mind is enough to keep many from even considering it.
I don’t know what caused the second son in Jesus’ parable to change his mind. He said ‘no’ to his father, but eventually he said ‘yes.’ Maybe he was distracted at first with other things or with friends. Who knows? But he overcame it, he made a decision to do the right thing. The other son said the right word, ‘yes’, but his words were cheap and he didn’t do what he promised. The actions of the two brothers showed what was really in their hearts. Our actions show that too, including our ability to actually change direction, even when it is difficult or unpopular to do so.
It all starts with a humble heart that supports a flexible spirit and a commitment to truth no matter the cost. May God grant us such hearts and such a spirit so we might do God’s will in this world today and always. Amen.