When Repentance is Not Enough


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

March 8, 2020

Texts: 1 Kings 21; Luke 19:1-10

       In the film The Greatest Story Ever Told as John the Baptist is being taken to his execution, he shouts “Repent!” to Herod Antipas who continues to hear the word ringing in his ears after the thud of the executioners’ axe. Herod Antipas did not repent of his marriage which brought about a disaster for him.

        Antipas had been previously married to Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, a country on the northern tip of the Arabian peninsula. That action added a personal dimension to the king’s grievances and a war broke out over how Antipas had so unceremoniously dumped Phasaelis and border disputes. 

       Tiberius sent his legions to try to secure the border but the war stopped when he unexpectedly died in 37 CE. Accused of conspiracy against the Emperor Caligula by his nephew Agrippa I, Antipas was sent into exile in Spain where he died at an unknown date. Never repenting, he took Herodias with him.

       In the text from 1 Kings this morning, Ahab shows repentance by humbling himself before the Lord. But he does not do so until after Elijah tells him that the Lord will cut him off and destroy his house, and he will end up like others who did what was evil. Ahab rends his garments and dons sackcloth and ashes and walks about meekly before the Lord. Is the show of repentance here enough?

         Compare this with the story of Zacchaeus, described in Luke’s Gospel as a chief tax collector. I relate to this story not just because Zacchaeus was short but because of what he promises to do as part of his repentance. He declares that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and states that if he has defrauded anyone, he will return fourfold the amount defrauded. 

        There are several major differences between the two kinds of repentance. In Luke there is real action after the repentance. In the case of Ahab repentance is a show because Ahab does not remove the images of Baal and actually starts a war over an area known as Ramoth-Gilead just east of the Jordan River. 

         What is repentance, true repentance? First, let’s consider what repentance is not. It is not simply remorse; neither is it self-condemnation. Beating our breasts, so to speak, doesn’t solve anything. 

         Repentance is a recognition that we have done something wrong. It doesn’t have to be a monumental wrong, but we know in our hearts that what we said or did was not right. It also applies to what we have not done, sometimes confused with regret. Repentance is different than mere regret.

         And then, of course, there is contrition, the feeling of being truly sorry for what we did – or did not – do. Personally, I find myself feeling more upset and sorry for what I did not do. Often we make excuses for what we did not do and they range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

          We are then brought to the point of changing our ways – this is where real repentance begins, but it doesn’t end there. There are times when even changing our ways does not make up for the wrong, whether it be large or little. He wrong has occurred; in many cases it cannot be undone. 

          At this time in our Nation’s history, descendants of really awful people end up apologizing for the evil that was done. Take Bradley Upton, for example. He just happens to be the great-great-grandson of James Forsyth who commanded the 7th Cavalry and who took his troops into a place called Wounded Knee where he and his troops slaughtered over 300 women and children. 

           Upton learned of his ancestor’s exploit from his great uncle who had shown him photographs of dead bodies, including babies still nursing at their mothers’ breasts. Our heroic troops took babies and speared them –and Upton upon learning of his ancestor’s role spent, as he put it, 50 years praying for some way to show repentance. How do you repent for another?

         Closer to our own day was the anti-Asian feeling that took over California and the West Coast. I remember meeting a girl, my age, who had been born in one of those so-called internment camps. Her parents lost everything –EVERYTHING because of the anti-Japanese sentiments after Pearl Harbor.

         The repentance of the U.S. Congress was an apology and $20,000 – in 1988 and even then it was an uphill battle. How many ethnic Japanese were even alive in 1988, 44 years after they were herded into camps and had their homes occupied and businesses destroyed? And it took over a decade of lobbying to even get an apology and this meagre compensation. 

         Those things happened in the past, we tell ourselves, certainly not today. Ah, but they do. Look at the issue of exonerated felons. In New Jersey. A person must make a claim within two years of release based on wrongful conviction. The State has actually set up a Conviction Review Unit headed up by a former family court judge and former prosecutor to review claims. 

          New Jersey has a compensation fund that enables those eligible to receive twice their annual income in the year prior to conviction or $50,000, whichever is greater, per year of incarceration. There are also non-monetary forms of assistance such as vocational training, housing assistance, and health insurance coverage.

          Sounds generous, right? But how do you compensate a person for eight, ten, or even twenty years of a life? And, in many cases, unable to admit an error, the local prosecutors want to have the exoneree retried. When you’ve put away someone for years, how can you admit that you were possibly wrong?

           Even in our own personal relationships there are times when repentance is not enough. Sometimes it’s a word or what’s perceived as a slight; it could be infidelity in a relationship. Broken relationships do not heal easily, if at all, no matter how sorry or repentant we are. 

           There is a real difference between regret and repentance. Regret is a feeling, personal, and as one author wrote, may have little to do with how we behave in the future. Repentance, however, results in action, usually to try to rectify whatever offense has occurred. We do so because we believe it is the right thing to do. 

          The writers in the early church called church fathers and church mothers wrote a good deal about the need for repentance. This was partly because they saw sin in a different way. People did not just have faults or failings according to these writers; they had sinful natures. Most theologians and religious writers do not use that kind of language today.

          In fact, for the most part, we really avoid using the word sin. It sounds so negative. But we don’t repent of faults; we repent of sins. Many of us have seen the list of Gandhi’s seven social sins published in 1925. They are worth repeating. 

         First is politics without principles; we certainly see that today. Then there is wealth without work; the stock market might be a good example. He included pleasure without conscience and knowledge without character.

      Commerce without morality would be all those cute little faux bunnies in the stores made with slave labor in China, and we have witnessed the results of science without humanity. The last one, worship without sacrifice seems more individual than social, but worship is more than what we do on Sunday mornings.

       Worship, true worship, includes repentance for the other six sins that encompass our lives every day. It’s more than just prostrating ourselves in sackcloth and ashes. It is a commitment to change our ways and to work for a new kind of society where people can really live in peace without fear.

       Let us pray: We come to you this morning, loving Creator, realizing that often we have wronged you and your creation. We pray for not just guidance but commitment and resolve to show more than remorse and continue your work of creation in the world. In the name of him who shows us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.