Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.
Remember, ‘repent’ does not mean to feel guilty and become cringingly submissive, but to have the strength and determination to change your mind. There is a saying of Lao Tzu that echoes the gospel of today’s parable of the fig tree that won’t bear fruit: if you don’t change direction you may end up where you are heading. This description of the consequences of refusing to change is not a threat but a simple warning. And yet, it is frighteningly difficult to change something in which you have been long-invested.
Early one fall morning I left with some companions for a long car trip home. The roads were empty and it was barely dawn. We were heading East and I thought we had taken that direction when we joined the highway. After thirty miles or so, I looked in the rear mirror and saw the beautiful colours of sunrise. I remarked on this and the others looked back and said ‘wow, that’s beautiful’. Then an uncomfortable silence descended on us which no one wanted to break. ‘The sun rises in the East, doesn’t it?’ some brave person asked. Even then, at first, it was hard to swallow the truth and turn around.
In the myth of the passage through the Red Sea the Israelites are escaping into the wilderness and freedom but are being pursued by the Egyptians who have changed their mind about letting them go. The Israelites panic and blame poor Moses, not for the first time, for leading them into disaster and start talking about going back. Then the pillar of cloud, that had been leading them up to that moment, changes position and takes up the rear of their caravan, hiding them from their pursuers and preparing for the great sign of the parting of the waters. There’s a lot of change going on in the story – the Israelites change their minds, the Egyptians change theirs, Moses thinks about changing his and even God seems to change his mind about where to put the cloud.
Repentance, changing the way we are heading – metanoia – is not only about making a decision. That can be agonising if we think that’s all there is to change. But behind the decision to change is the motor of assent, seeing what is and assenting to it, saying ‘Yes. Sorry. That’s right’. Seeing what actually is happening means stripping away and discarding all our most familiar and well-justified illusions. Hard to do at the best of times, it is most difficult in the worst of times when we fear change and long most for the security of being right. It takes time, as learning to do Lent takes time. It’s better to have a habit of doing it regularly each day, so that the wrong ideas and the behaviours they produce don’t get time to harden.
Seeing what is, experiencing the incontrovertible isness of the truth, is the essence of good judgement and, amazingly, it even gives us the energy needed to choose it.