Justified by repentance.
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023 at Holy Communion
Joshua 2:1-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Matthew 15:21-28
“I tell you, the repentant tax collector went down to his house justified, rather than the Pharisee” (Luke 18:14). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
“Justification” might be the most important word in Protestant theology. We say that we are justified by by faith. This is language that comes from St Paul. “Justification” means “made right,” so “justification by faith” means that our broken relationship with God is made whole by trusting God to save us through the death and resurrection of his Son.
This is true. But what if I told you that, rather than being justified by faith, we are justified by repentance?
In the Bible, no one loves the word “justification” as much as St Paul, but there are also places outside of his letters where the term gets used, and used somewhat differently. Jesus uses the word “justified” as a theological term twice, saying in Matthew that we are justified “by our words” (Matthew 12:37) and in Luke that a tax collector was justified by his prayer for mercy (Luke 18:14). And the Apostle James in chapter two of his letter clarifies what Paul means, saying that we are justified not by faith alone, but by a living faith which produces works of love (James 2). In that chapter, he uses Rahab, the main character of our Old Testament reading, as an example of justification by faithful works.
The point is that, if you want to be made right with God, there is more to say about the matter than “just believe in Jesus.” Salvation is an unmerited gift, certainly, and it is one we can only receive with faith, but it is a also gift that changes our relationship to God the giver. That practical change in our relationship to God could be called “repentance.” We are justified by repentance.
All three of our readings are about changes in relationship, where a person starts alienated from God, changes her posture toward God, and is made right with God. Alienation from God is where we start, justification is what we want, and repentance is how we get there.
Our Old Testament reading is the story of Rahab the prostitute. She is living in the Promised Land just before the Israelites, who have escaped from slavery in Egypt, are about to conquer the land and throw out its pagan inhabitants. Rahab knows that she and her people are in great danger. So, when Israelite spies seek shelter at her brothel, she takes it as an opportunity to change sides, to save her own life by aligning herself with the Jews. Instead of turning the spies over to the authorities she hides them and sends them away safely.
This is a story of repentance and justification. Rahab starts alienated from God, a member of a people which is at war with God’s people. But she takes practical steps to change that relationship. She places herself fully and willingly at the mercy of the God of the Jews, and she ends up justified, made right with God and included in his people, even though she had been a foreigner and a prostitute.
This story has many resonances with our Gospel reading. Again we meet a “Canaanite woman,” a non-Jewish woman from the Promised Land, whose daughter is oppressed by an evil spirit. Jesus is on retreat in her area, so she seeks him out and loudly asks him to help. He replies to her that his mission is to his own people, the Jews, not to her. “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs,” he says. He’s testing her. She replies well: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Jesus, pleased by her faith, heals her daughter instantly.
The Canaanite woman begins alienated from God, a member of a people to whom Jesus was not sent in his earthly ministry. But she needs Jesus’ help, so she changes her relationship to him. She insists that, although she may not be a Jew, she will accept even a crumb that falls from the table of mercy which God sets before his own people. She says, “I would rather receive scraps from your table than a feast at my own.” We can call this “repentance.” She changes allegiances, adopts a posture of total humility, and throws herself fully on the mercy of Jesus.
If this seems somewhat abstract, our Epistle reading is very practical. It talks about “repentance” in a way that we are more familiar with. Sexual immorality was rampant in ancient Greek culture, just as it is today, and so Saint Paul reminds the church in Thessalonica that God’s desire for them is that they leave this behind, and “control their own bodies in holiness and honour.” He tells them that becoming a Christian involves a practical change of life which reflects their new relationship with God, and if they don’t make this change, they are still as much subject to God’s judgement as they were before. Being made right with God requires practical repentance, a real change of life.
In all of this, of course there is space for mercy and forgiveness when we return to old habits. But that mercy consists in God’s graciousness to forgive us and to receive us back when we return to him with humility and fresh repentance. He gives us his spiritual strength, working in and with us, to live a new way. But God’s mercy is never about glossing over the fact that sin alienates us from him. Repentance is necessary for being reconciled to God.
If repentance is practical, then its meaning will be different for each one of us: only we can identify the patterns in our lives that keep God distant. We need to desist from these habits. And we need to places ourselves instead in a relationship to God where we acknowledge our need for him, where we trust in his goodness, and where we have joy and thankfulness for the new life of freedom from the old, destructive ways that lead nowhere but to death. This is repentance. This is the way to be made right with God.