Then the king had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.” When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.Jonah 11:32
“Ninevites will rise at the judgment along with this generation and will condemn it; because at the proclamation of Jonah they changed their hearts, and see: Something greater than Jonah is here.”Luke 11:32
Jonah has been called “the reluctant prophet.” He also had to be one of the most amazed. He was only one day through his call to repentance to the people of Nineveh, when all, from the king on down, recognize and turn from their evil and violent ways and fast and pray in repentance. Jonah, as we know, is deeply upset with the Lord’s readiness to forgive, we can only assume because the prophet himself had clearly not repented of and forsaken his own violence.
In Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the “wicked generation” before him who seek a sign. It is clear in Jesus’ response that what makes this generation so wicked is its arrogance. From their self-exalted position, they place themselves above Jesus and demand of him a sign if they are to give him credence. In reply, Jesus calls out their prideful wickedness, and tells them, and us, that to know him requires that we repent, as did the people of Nineveh. When we know our sinfulness and need of Jesus, he will show us the mercy of God. If we don’t need that mercy, though, we’ll never experience it.
We all have been taught that lent is a penitential season. But, for the most part, this means to us that we should somehow do penance in a rather abstracted way. We may fast and abstain to a certain degree; we may add a spiritual practice or two; and we may also increase our almsgiving at church or elsewhere a bit. Yet, for many of us in our time, the awareness of our sinfulness and the deeply felt need for repentance is often quite remote.
In a recent gathering a group of us who are vowed to poverty opened up a conversation about our own individual and group fidelity to the call of evangelical poverty. Quite readily, however, the conversation turned rather self-congratulatory. We began to remind each other, and probably most of all ourselves, of all the social consciousness we had helped to raise in our students, and of the wonderful things “they” did as a result. I was reminded of Matthew 16 where Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is. They all begin to give the answers they have heard. And Jesus then says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” The encounter with Jesus is one that calls us personally to account and to responsibility. It calls us to ask ourselves about the integrity and authenticity of our own life. Yet, there is discomfort for us in confronting directly a question of our own fidelity to our unique call, to reckon with the depth and breadth of our authenticity and sincerity. We readily fall prey to seeking refuge in “common sense.”
Repentance is not a familiar experience in our time. In fact, all of this sitting in sackcloth and ashes sounds at best a bit quaint and at worst a bit mad.Yet, Pope Francis consistently reminds us of how central to our lives is the truth of God’s mercy. In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera, he calls our attention to one of the most powerful images of the encounter with Jesus, what St. Augustine calls the meeting of “mercy with misery.” Pope Francis then tells us that “Nothing of what a repentant sinner places before God’s mercy can be excluded from the embrace of his forgiveness.” For us who have been formed and who live in a culture of self-actualization, self-help, and self-promotion, this human reality has, in large part, receded from our consciousness.
It seems a strange irony that the more we engage in a cult of self-aggrandizement the more insecure we become. We see around us and in ourselves the wealthy and the powerful who seem to feel limitless in their ability to control others and even the direction of society. And we ourselves become comfortable with domination and control, but at the cost of suppressing and repressing the truth about ourselves. We are comfortable flaunting our real or imagined expertise, but we are convinced that our fallibility and weakness have nothing to offer the world. We readily move to reading all aspects of our past as right and successful because we so deeply fear what the truth of our errors and sinfulness and weakness means.
So for us today to openly and honesty read the story of the people of Nineveh is not unlikely to leave us engaged, if at all, only at the level of head rather than of heart. We can’t really imagine that a word could so stir us that we would need to repent truly of our past and reform our lives for the future. Perhaps we would have to acknowledge that for all our “religious” protestations to the contrary, we are not really believers, that is, we don’t really live out our lives trusting God’s mercy. Somehow, especially in cultures that have no room for weakness and failure, we do not think it possible to flourish while facing and admitting our fears and failures.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche began his academic life as a philologist. His thesis opened with an epigraph from Pindar: “Become who you are.” As the philosopher John Kaag writes in his book Hiking With Nietzsche, “This was no simple task, as it meant preserving individualism in the midst of society, interacting with others without being absorbed by the group” (p. 31). The very energy of growth and change is our felt experience of the gap between who we are and who it is we present to the world. Repentance means awareness of that gap and of the suffering that inauthenticity creates in our own deeper life and being responsible for that gap to the One who created us. There is no repentance without relationship to the Mystery and trust in the beneficence and mercy of that mystery.
So many of us have been struck in recent years by the refusal of the powerful to accept any personal responsibility for their failures. For example, in 2008 due to the greed and malfeasance of the largest financial institutions, ordinary citizens were thrust into poverty and homelessness. When the CEO’s of the failed institutions came before congress, pretty much all of them denied any personal responsibility for their companies’ actions, even though the enormous salaries they received were supposedly in correspondence to the level of responsibility they bore. We continue to live with a disintegrating church structure that is the result of the failure of responsibility of those who for so long demanded submission and obedience to themselves as responsible shepherds of God’s word. Yet, when horrors occurred under their watch, they refused to act responsibly and then to accept responsibility. Lest we be too judgmental of others, however, we must admit that the milieu in which we live moves even ourselves to preserve appearance at all cost.
Our violence toward others is the measure of our refusal of the truth of our spiritual awareness. Today, and as we enter into the early days of this year’s lenten observance, we are reminded that one form our spiritual awareness takes is repentance. When we are spiritually awake, we are aware of and we repent for how distant our way of being and living is from who we really are. Without this awareness, one that shakes us to our foundations and brings us to our knees begging for the mercy of God, lent is but the passing days before Easter. Without the spiritual awareness of repentance, there is left in us only power, control, and their resulting violence as the energy of our relations with each other.
Jonah is upset that God relents of the destruction that had been threatened on the people of Nineveh. In Jonah’s view, given the extent of their evil, they do not deserve to be forgiven this easily. Yet, this is the very point. It is of the very nature of God to have mercy on us, to allow us to live throughout the entire extent of our lives in process of becoming who we are. Perhaps of all the struggles we have in being believers, the greatest is the struggle of Jonah. The mercy of God, not only relative to others but especially to ourselves, seems beyond belief to us. And so, we assiduously avoid confronting the reality of our own need for that mercy. Instead of self-examination, we engage in self-promotion (the promotion of the pride form). As St. Paul in the early stages of his ministry, instead of offering to others our weakness and vulnerability, we attempt to offer what we see as (or at least hope to be) our strength.
As a result, we live our lives in “repetition compulsion.” We keep repeating the same mistakes attempting to get them right with the same deficiencies. We are not able to really change, to reform our lives, because we do not dare to experience our need to do so. One of the things I have struggled to learn in my life is that I can bear the truth of my own experience. For so long, I had to lie to myself and others about who I was, I had to suppress and repress truths about myself and my past experience because I feared that I could not bear to live with it. I did not really believe Jesus when he said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8: 31-32). There is suffering in bearing the truth, but there is also the sweetness and the life-giving potential of mercy. That is the freedom that comes with the truth. I need not strain and fight and push against others in order to maintain my false facade. I know my place, as low as it is, and I am grateful for it. From that place, where I have become more myself, I can offer what I really have to give, as small as it may seem to me. When I’m behaving as if I am powerful, then I am giving nothing, whatever accolades are bestowed on me.
The Ninevites will judge us because, at a word from Jonah, they acknowledged the truth and repented — and we assume changed. We are culturally formed to repress our need for repentance because, in our cultural and social immaturity, we fear looking into the abyss. John Kaag quotes Niezsche: “if thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Somehow we intuitively know this to be true that if we dare to gaze into the abyss of our own finiteness and mortality, we shall hear a voice out of that abyss. Our fear is that the voice will be one of absurdity, meaninglessness, or judgment. But Jesus attests that the voice will rather be one of mercy, compassion, and love. We can face the truth because we are judged not on condition of being right or even good, but rather in love and mercy. As we learn through the example of the Ninevites, all we need do is acknowledge and commit ourselves, in repentance, to living in and from the truth. Then, we shall be receptive to the grace of God to become, in God’s good time, more fully who we are.
The Cross is the sign of contradiction—destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies. . . But the magicians keep turning the cross to their own purposes. Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the cross contradict mercy! This is of course the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved—while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.Thomas Merton, “To Each His Darkness,” in Raids on the Unspeakable, quoted in Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything, p. 66.