Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Enigma of Penance

Judaism teaches that repentance is required to obtain salvation. The Gospel of Luke reaffirms the obligation of repentance. Luke stresses more than any other New Testament writer the need for repentance.[i] With Gabriel's announcement about John to Zechariah while he is serving in the Temple, Luke portrays Israel as a people in need of repentance. The need is repeated in the Song of Zechariah and is implied in John's message of repentance. Luke's theology of repentance is very Jewish.[ii] The strong emphasis on repentance in the Gospel of Luke naturally led the development of a penitential system in the early Church.

In The Enigma of the Prodigal Son, I noted that the Lucan Jesus has redefined the requirements of repentance. This interpretation undermines the foundation of the penitential system that existed unchallenged for 1500 years.

But the enigma remains. What societal needs did the penitential system fulfill?

1) Discipline: social control

Penances were harsh to prevent people from sinning.

The system was in part designed to insure the purity of the faithful in attendance for the Eucharistic feast.

2) Consolation: cure of a guilty conscience

The strongest evidence of this function is provided by the deathbed penance where an exception to the requirements allows the priest to provide psychological comfort to the parishioner believed to be on his deathbed.

In the discussion of the penitential systems of the early and medieval church, the focus has been on the mechanics with little mention of the theological framework. Because the penitential systems of the early and medieval church addressed social concerns and not theological concerns it failed in both areas.

Copyrighted 2005

[i]. The noun (metanoia) or verb (metanoeo) form appears 56 times in the New Testament. 25 are found either in the Gospel of Luke or the Acts of the Apostles.

Lk. 1:5-25; 3:1-6; 3:10-14; 5:32; 9:24-25; 10:13-15; 11: 29-32; 13:1-5; 15:1-7; 8-10; 11-32; 16:19-31; 19:1-10; 24:47. For Luke, repentance is the summary term for the response to the apostolic message: Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 13:24; 17:30; 19:4; 20:21 and 26:20.

[ii]. Ehud Luz, 'Repentance,' in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, (New York 1987), 785: 'Teshuvah is a central concept in Jewish religious literature and may be said to express the essence of the religious and ethical ideal of Judaism.' It was another great Jewish thinker of the 20th century, R. Joseph Soloveitehik, who said prayer and repentance are the most crucial of religious duties and represent the essence of Judaism.


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