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On the Concept of Penance – Part 2

In Part 2 and Part 3, merely a few selected passages from Scripture will be examined for the sake of brevity. It is assumed that one has read Part 1.

2.1 “In the beginning…”

When God created our first parents, He “blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply…” (Genesis 1) Then they disobeyed His instructions and He imposed certain punishments (Genesis 3) which one can crudely summarize into one sentence: Life is a pain and then you die.

Has Jesus Christ’s Death and Resurrection or the acceptance thereof retracted, rescinded or otherwise removed those conditions?

Obviously not. God is just (Deuteronomy 32) and justice demands that everything be accounted for. Since these conditions still exist, there are logically two mutually exclusive possibilities.

A: God is a cheater and a liar by double-charging since He has charged the price of sin to Jesus and us.

B: Some people fail to make the commonsensical distinction between the infinite price and the temporal (finite) price due to sin.

Unless one is in denial, the answer is obviously B.

A more specific example is God’s response to David’s double sin of homicide and adultery. God forgave David but he was warned that he will suffer some serious family issues. (2 Samuel 12)

2.2 Christ’s Partial Answer

What is vague in the Old Testament is sometimes elaborated in the New Testament. Jesus addressed the problem when He preached the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, Luke 6), an episode that is no doubt deliberately presented early in the Gospel narrative (start of the New Testament) as if to explain the narration of the Fall in early Genesis (start of the Old Testament).

The first Beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Read the rest and one can see a pattern: Blessed are <some form of or something closely related to suffering>, for <corresponding reward>.

Christ maintains God’s intention for us to be “blessed” despite the Fall. But things are no longer freely provided for. We can still be “blessed” but we must suffer; that is, we must pay for it.

Christ has not taken away temporal punishment (sufferings). If anything, he has affirmed its importance without contradicting the need for His Passion and Death. As mentioned already, there is a distinction between His infinite merits and our temporal (finite) merits. Although Christ does not state it explicitly here and it is another topic, it is Him who gives our sufferings meaning; it is through His infinite sacrifice that our temporal (finite) merits gain infinite value and, ultimately, to be “blessed”.

What does “blessed” mean? In this life, I don’t presume to know exactly but one can simplistically consider a possible end case: ultimately, to be saved is to be blessed (enter the “kingdom of heaven”). If one wants to be more specific, then consider 1 John 5:20:

And we know that the Son of God is come: and he hath given us understanding that we may know the true God, and may be in his true Son. This is the true God and life eternal.

The reward of eternal life is to “know” God. Although not stated explicitly, this is presumably the primary reward, sometimes referred to as “Beatific Vision”. After all, the Fall broke humanity’s relationship with God and Christ came to restore this relationship.

The Sermon on the Mount, 1481–1482 (fresco), Cosimo Rosselli
The Sermon on the Mount, 1481–1482 (fresco), Cosimo Rosselli

2.3 Penance

Whether the word “penance” is found in Scripture depends on the translation. Consider Matthew 3:1–2 as an example.

From the Catholic DR:

And in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. And saying: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

From the NIV:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

The DR translates as “Do penance” whereas the NIV translates as “Repent”.

The Greek verb used is the inflected form of μετανοέω (metanoeō) which means “to change one’s mind”. As told to me by one who has studied Greek, the image attached to the word is that of “one doing a 180-degree turn”. In this sense, “repent” is an accurate literal translation.

So why does the Catholic DR translate it as “penance”? After all, “penance” is more than just “turning around”, it is more consistent to “somehow making up for it”.

Consider this analogy: Imagine one has gone down the wrong path. And upon realizing this, one wishes not to continue on this wrong path. So, one stops, does a 180-degree turn (“repent”) and then… remain on the spot? Of course not. After turning around, one needs to make their way back to the intersection where they made the wrong turn or, if that is not possible, make an effort to find a better route (“do penance”).

Although “repent” is a better literal translation, “penance” is a more complete translation for English speakers. It avoids the potential problem of reading “repent” as merely “turning around” whilst conveniently avoiding penance. To use commonsense: repentance should lead to penance anyway or penance presupposes repentance.

If one believes the dictionary, the Hebrew verb is similar. For example, “do penance” is sometimes translated as “turns away” in Ezechiel 18:21 shown below. Unlike the above, this passage explicitly highlights the importance of making an effort to behave uprightly, which is more than merely “repent”.

But if the wicked do penance for all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my commandments, and do judgment, and justice, living he shall live, and shall not die.

Part 3 will briefly examine a few more passages from Scripture.


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