What are fruits worthy of repentance? John told those who came to him for baptism to bear fruit worthy of repentance. So what would those fruits be? That was a part of what my sermon last Sunday was about.
These worthy fruits come with two problems. The first has to do with repentance. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we go over the meaning of repentance, the idea that it requires some deep expression of remorse over a particular moral failure is buried so deep that anything other than that is a hard sell. The second has to do with what is required for something to be worthy. Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? Climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees? Wearing a hair shirt with ashes? Perhaps not quite that.
Our contemporary American practice is to require some kind of public shaming, preferably the sort of shame that will stick for a good long time, allowing others a generous opportunity to tut-tut. We don’t officially shun offenders, we just make them feel like they have been. After all, wasn’t Lent intended to be a period in which those who had been excluded from Holy Communion because of notorious sins be lovingly restored to the bosom of the Church at Easter? How good of us good people to be so forgivingly good to those notorious sinners.
John, despite all the viper language, seems to have a different idea. The mark of repentance, the fruit worthy of repentance, is to continue doing the ordinary work of daily life in the sure and certain knowledge that one is always walking in God’s sight. That, it seems to me, was the great good news that his listeners heard. By entering the waters of John’s baptism they bypassed the rigors of becoming acceptable to the guardians of the temple, something that was unlikely to ever happen, and came out as very much like the same person who went in, and yet dramatically changed as ones who, walking daily in God’s sight, led their ordinary lives in entirely new ways.
So, and this is what we struggled with, by what do you measure the fruits of your labor? Are they worthy of repentance? That is to say, are they worthy of being gained while God is watching? That gets to be a very interesting question. Do I buy and sell in a way I want God to see? Do I farm land, employ others, work for my boss, engage with my family and friends in ways that I want God to see? Do I treat sales clerks, strangers, cops and crooks in ways that I want God to see? In other words, as I go about my daily life, more or less as I always have, am I doing so in God’s company?
Think about it. It could be that climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees is easier. Well, maybe not easier, but preferable to the discipline of walking in God’s sight.