Mt. 7:1-5, “Penance”, Sixth Wednesday in Lent, 5 Apr 2017
When I was studying the theology of reconciliation, I remember visiting the office of one of the finest theologians of the 20th Century, Geoffrey Wainwright. He had been my teacher, and I trusted that he could help me address any related subjects I might be missing as I prepared to write my dissertation. So, I went to ask him this simple question: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word reconciliation?” I had hoped he would tell me a fascinating story about forgiveness, or reflect for a while on some relevant biblical passage. Instead, he simply offered one word. Without elaborating, he said, “Penance.”
The definition of penance has to do with self-punishment as a means of repentance for one’s sins. It is a voluntary act of contrition that takes different forms across the diverse spectrum of Christianity. For example, for Catholics, penance is both a virtue and a sacrament. Through the practice of penance, Catholics confess their sins to a priest in a confessional, and are given instructions for prayer or charitable acts, depending on the severity of the sins committed. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are no confessionals. The penitent kneels before an icon of Christ, so that confession may be made directly to Christ, with the priest serving only as a witness and comforter. As well, Anglicans and Episcopals, Methodists and Lutherans, all have their own approaches to penance and reconciliation. Baptists, however, have practically done away with the sacrament of penance as a way to reconciliation with God and neighbor, perhaps because we are concerned that such a practice is unnecessary when we supposedly have a direct line to God’s grace in Jesus. Better to confess our sins silently, in private, and avoid the humiliation of confession and penance.
But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us painful work to do. “Take the log out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” The more I think about this passage, the more it makes me wince. A splinter in the ball of my foot is one thing. If it’s really submerged underneath the skin, it can be quite an unpleasant operation. But a splinter in my eye? I suppose it would take some creative gymnastics to achieve that painful consequence. As well, it would likely take a careful, even surgical procedure to achieve relief. Which makes even more bizarre the spectacle Jesus describes of having a log, or beam, lodged in one’s eye. This is a comically large log, a cartoonish picture of someone looking to pass judgment on another. On our best days, we might be able to remove a splinter from our own eye. But a massive beam? We’re going to need someone else’s help, and it’s going to be a painful extraction.
But the painful work of discerning our own sins and wrongdoings with others’ help is necessary if we would be reconciled to God. The more serious our sins, the more help from the community we are going to need. Even if we are Baptists. Or, I should say, precisely because we are Baptists, we should know that we are, as Carlyle Marney often said, “priests to one another.” That is, within our community known as the priesthood of all believers, we are given to each other as mediators and comforters, who have the authority to hear one another’s confessions, call each other to repentance, and speak to one another of the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer calls us to reclaim the practice of confession and penance, so that it is simply and purely integrated into the life of discipleship, and as regular a Christian habit as mission work. Like much we call mission work, there will be some painful, heavy lifting involved…to extract the ponderous, wooden beam from our own eye. As Bonhoeffer says,
“Confession in the presence of a brother [or sister] is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a [person] down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother [or sister] – which means, before God – we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old [person] dies, but it is God who has conquered him [or her]. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life” (from Life Together).
To some, this may sound like works righteousness. Are we not already the recipients of God’s grace? Does God’s grace not cover all my sins? Why do I need to confess my sins if I am already forgiven? Indeed, God’s grace does cover up all our sins. We learn from Jeremiah that God will even “forget” our sins. As well we should say the practice of penance can be abused and has been abused. But now we are talking about a complete reorientation of the heart, one that reveals penance as a gift from God that enables us to conquer sinful habits, and free us from the cumbersome timber that thwarts our vision.
If we would be reconciled to God, and live in harmony with God and neighbor, then may we have the courage to tell a trusted sister or brother in Christ, with a broken and contrite heart, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”