On a long trip in the car recently, I was scrolling through my mp3 player (for the record, I’m still the proud owner of a Zune after all these years) and I stumbled across an old N.T. Wright sermon I had uploaded on there, probably a decade ago by now. Deciding to listen again (having largely forgotten what the sermon was about), I was pleasantly reminded why N.T. Wright was a legend to me in my former life as an aspiring theologian.
At one point in the sermon, Wright discusses what he thinks the modern church has missed about “the gospel.” Now, having grown up evangelical, I was raised to be a big fan of “the gospel” – gospel music, gospel preaching, gospel-themed denominations, etc. And all of this is perfectly acceptable and coming from a good place, to be sure – good people loving Jesus and wanting to make their belief in him a central facet of their worship practice. Wright was not intending to cast aspersions on the evangelical venture writ large. But he did want to clarify a point that often gets lost on account of the intensely subjective and individualistic emphasis on religious experiences in many Christian churches today.
Jesus of Nazareth emerged out of the wilderness into Galilee – something of a backwoods part of Israel back in the first century CE – going around and telling people, according to Mark 1, that “[t]he time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Each of these words undoubtedly caught the ears of his contemporaries, as they were theologically loaded. “The time” likely refers to the period of exile that Israel had been sentenced to for her spiritual infidelities, as discussed in places like Daniel 9. Its fulfillment was, needless to say, a huge deal, as it meant the Jews’ status in exile was over and the long-anticipated restoration of the Davidic dynasty would finally occur. “The kingdom of God” was this Jewish dynastic throne that the Jews yearned to see restored as they suffered under Roman occupation. But the most important thing Jesus’ contemporaries were to hear from him was the final imperative: “Repent and believe in the good news.”
Reading this in the twenty-first century, it is very easy to read it through the existential lens that has become part-and-parcel of modern religious experience, with an emphasis on self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, etc. (Krister Stendahl called this “The Introspective Conscience of the West” in a riveting article by the same title). That is, to modern ears, this call to repent is often heard as a call to feel really sorry for all the bad things you’ve done, make amends by confessing them in a prayer to God, and then joining a church to show that you are serious about how sorry you are. As Wright points out, however, this more-or-less misses the point:
When Jesus told people to repent, he didn’t mean “Have some kind of sad religious experience.” He meant “You’re going the wrong way! You’re going to have to turn around because God is doing a new thing. If you’re going to part of that new thing, you’re going to have to give up the way you’ve been going.”
By way of example, Wright discusses an incident where the Jewish historian Josephus approached a Jewish rebel during the Jewish-Roman War period. This rebel (who happened to be named “Jesus” – “Jesus” was like the “John” of first century Palestine, apparently) had plotted to kill Josephus, and Josephus managed to confront him in a neutral manner to try to reason with him:
[I told Jesus] that I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me …; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.
Now that last statement – “show repentance and prove . . . loyalty to me” – while translated fairly according to the spirit of Josephus’ words, does not quite do what Josephus said justice. Because, according to Wright, what Josephus said in Greek was metanoeite kai pistoi en me, or, “Repent and believe in me.” Josephus, of course, was not ordering the rebel Jesus to convert to a Josephus-oriented religion. No, what he was saying was, as Wright points out, “Give up the way you’ve been going.” Jesus, a rebel against the Roman Empire, was living life all backwards, and Josephus was trying to persuade him he was doing it wrong.
So, when Jesus walked around Galilee saying nearly this same exact thing – “Repent and believe in the good news” – he was not saying, “Feel sorry for all the bad things you’ve done and mentally assent to a certain set of doctrinal convictions.” Rather, like Josephus some years later, Jesus was saying, “There’s a new way of doing life! You’ve been doing it wrong this whole time. Give up your way of doing things and follow my teachings instead.”
Which means there are affirmative obligations on the part of those who have committed to the way of life Jesus presented and modeled. What do these obligations entail? Thankfully, we are left with some record of what Jesus envisioned this way of life to look like:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Nothing like setting a high bar: “Be perfect” is what those who want to follow Jesus’ way of living are called to do.
Which is impossible. And which is why, far from being a once-upon-a-time occurrence, repentance must be a daily task. We are doing it wrong when we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, or fail to go the extra mile for someone who needs (or demands!) we do so, or fail to turn the other cheek. The call rings through the centuries to us in the present – Stop doing life that way! There’s a better way! Try it! Of course, it’s impossible, as we are all flawed, weak, brokenhearted individuals, prone to mistakes, errors, and slights. That is why, in part, Jesus speaks elsewhere about how it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter the kingdom of God, i.e., the upside-down, self-sacrificial type of existence Jesus preached about over the course of his time on earth.
Like the disciples, then, we must ask, “So who can be saved?” Thankfully, while for mortals it is impossible, “for God all things are possible.” In the meantime, we – I – must learn to repudiate our erroneous way of doing life, day-in and day-out. There is a better way, and repentance – that is, turning around and going the right way instead of continuing down the wrong way – is the only way to try it.