Jesus tells a number of parables of reversal — that is stories where the expected winner, loses. There is the farmer who has a bumper crop and tears down his barns in order to build new ones. Surprise! His name appears in tomorrow’s obituary (Luke 12:16-21). There are seeds that do well when first sown and then fail when the noon day sun burns down on them (Mark 4:3-8). And then there is the story of a good man, a Pharisee, who goes up to pray and the blessings of God skip over this paragon of virtue. Instead, a disreputable tax collector goes home knowing that his prayer is heard (Luke 18:9-14).
In matters of religion, we should expect reversals. Those who start out well, don’t always end well. Getting into heaven is not a matter of joining the right church or developing the right theology. Jesus tells us of a tax collector and a Pharisee who are praying at the same moment in the same church. Jesus says that success in religion is a matter of contrition.
Contrition is a state of the heart. Contrition is a response to the experience of shame where one lays aside all excuses and pride and becomes penitent to the core of one’s being. This shame may be related to actions that you have been told all of your adult life were perfectly fine. The Pharisee was expected by his peers to look down on women, the poor, all foreigners, and those who worked jobs that his party considered impure. The tax collector was taught to use his office for extortion and to squeeze additional money from the middle class people who showed up at his stall without lawyers. In both cases, they couldn’t be contrite until they stepped away from what their peers consider to be normal. In order to be contrite, you must do the brave thing and judge your identity and role in life by a higher standard. When I think of the compassion that God has for all people, am I ashamed of who I have become?
Contrition can be learned. As parents we do this with our children when we listen to their apologies. Wise parents do not shame their children when they make a simple mistake or fail to do a task. But if they find their child being cruel to their siblings or abusing the family pet, they seize this teachable moment and hold the child accountable until a heart-felt apology emerges. Great parents, often unknowingly, teach contrition by being transparent. They share honestly the shame that they feel when they have hurt someone. They are careful not to put the family name, their ethnicity, their church denomination, or their political party up on a platform. Every grouping we belong to, has done and will do in the future, things one should be ashamed of.
We seek to learn contrition day by day when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, should act as a search light. What aspects of our lives should we lay out with shame and contrition before the almighty? When we think back on our family of origin and our ethnicity, what history should we be more transparent about? Are we open to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to not only bring us forgiveness, but also the wisdom to live differently?