Performing Repentance by Rev. Dr. Michael J. Brown, Jr.
Psalm 51:1-17; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The beginning of the Lenten season starts with a Gospel word of warning, “Beware of practicing your [dikaiosyne] before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:1 NRSV). Normally, you would have read the word “piety” or something similar when it comes to what you are supposed to be careful of practicing. This is unfortunate because the modern English word, piety, does not quite capture the range of meaning invoked by the term dikaiosyne. Piety is often understood to be personal and spiritual. Yes, the actions described—almsgiving, fasting, and prayer—are (and were) understood to be acts of worship. This may be how the preference for piety as a description arose. Still, in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount, dikaiosyne is translated as righteousness or justice (e.g., 5:10, 20; 6:33). In other words, in ways that sound like much more than just personal spiritual improvement. There is no unambiguous way to grasp the fullness of what Matthew is saying here other than to say: we are to be very careful how we carry out our acts of worship because they have immediate social ramifications. In fact, it might be helpful to translate the general principle as follows, “Be very careful about how you perform your works of justice . . .”
The idea of hypocrisy helps us understand the performative aspect of this passage. In ancient Greek, a “hypocrite” (hypokrites) was an actor, a person performing a role. This is not to mean, immediately, that the individual is insincere. We can be magically transported to many times and places based on the deep and moving performances of persons like Denzel Washington and Taraji Henson. Performance really is not the problem. The audience is the concern, “before others in order to be seen by them.” Acts of worship can quickly and unintentionally devolve into self-aggrandizing acts of performance. Put another way, Jesus is telling us that there is a thin line between worship and theater.
Worship becomes theater when we perform repentance without recognizing how our individual acts and practices feed into group acts and practices that promote injustice, indignity, humiliation, oppression, and misunderstanding. The psalmist may highlight our Ash Wednesday sentiments—“Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5)—but the focus only on ourselves distorts the more complex truth both Matthew and Joel present for our consideration.
Our liturgies may focus on the corporate or communal—“we have sinned against you”—but I contend that when we lament our past sinful “thoughts, words, and deeds” we are thinking of private acts, not public ones. The Sermon on the Mount points out to us that our worship influences not only ourselves but suffuses through society. Ash Wednesday is not normally the day we take on the “sin” of the world, but maybe it should be.
To give alms is to practice mercy. Benevolence and patronage, the practices of the day, were acts of charity not meant to change anything, fundamentally. Almsgiving, especially when understood as a survival strategy, is an act of community solidarity. Prayer, by contrast, is realigning our individual and corporate wills with the divine will. In prayer, we pronounce and affirm God’s vision for the world. Fasting is a form of recognition and mourning.
Fasting is a practice of grieving. We tend to think of it in personal terms, even though most biblical discussions of fasting are directed at communities of people. This is certainly true in the case of today’s prophetic text. Joel addresses his audience in the second person plural (i.e., “you” as a group as opposed to “you” as an individual). Notice he says, “[C]all a solemn assembly; gather the people” (Joel 2:15-16). Even the infants are to be included in this great fast. It is not a time for personal improvement or singular contemplation, Joel calls for a communal outpouring of grief.
Fasting is a performance of repentance. Social scientists look at these things as rituals. In other words, there are certain practices or actions expected from persons who are experiencing grief. Think about a death in the family. People take off from work. Friends and family bring food. Normal time stops. Even with all the food and drink, we do not treat the moment as one of partying or celebration. In fact, if someone, say the son of the departed, acted in manner that communicated happiness or satisfaction, the community would not view such actions favorably. It is because happiness violates the norms or rituals—the way we behave—around the death of a loved one. Something similar is true of fasting.
Fasting is a public recognition that something has gone wrong. The prophet Joel never says what the people did to offend God. Apparently, this is not the point. The point is that the violation of the relationship demands that a certain response be given when confronted with the social collapse described in Joel 1. It cannot be joy. It cannot be praise. It can only be grief. Grieving is the proper response to the recognition that sin has distorted, destroyed, and dismantled our communal life. In this sense, the fast is the appropriate worship response.
The prophet tells us to tear open our hearts and not our clothing (Joel 2:12-13). As our hearts are opened to the vastness of this Lenten season, let us embrace the wider reality that envelopes us. We may live in a land of plenty, but such plenty does not abound to all. As we embrace our individual sins, let us see more clearly the extent to which we are swimming in a sea of injustice and indifference. Today is the first day for the rest of your discipleship.