12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God? [Joel 2:12-14, NRSV]
In the season of Lent, we are accustomed to meeting two types of parishioners coming out from church after a weekday Mass. One stops to talk to us, asking about our fasting schedule and telling us how harshly he denies himself of all solid food during the day, restricting himself to some water ration only, nothing more. He seems pleased with himself and his stoic Lenten achievement. Another avoids everybody, skirting round a lingering crowd outside church, her lips shut tight, her eyes visibly reddish. It does not take much to figure out that the first is rather concerned with the external manifestations of Lenten practices, while the second allows her heart to be really torn by repentance.
Clothes wear and tear. When you tear your clothes, the pain is minimal. When a relationship is torn, the level of pain depends on the nature of the relationship, its length and depth, how much it hurts your pride and how seriously it pains your heart. But when the prophet Joel talks about rending one’s heart, he leaves no room for doubt concerning the pain and sorrow this is supposed to inflict on oneself.
Throughout the scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, the consistent message of the prophets, the apostles, and Christ himself, is with the interior life of the child of God over and above the exterior life. So when the 5th century BCE prophet Joel [dating the Book of Joel, it must be mentioned, is a matter of ongoing difficulties for scholars] admonishes the people, he does so with the same preoccupation. From across the centuries, he reminds us today that when we sin and fall short of our potential to walk the way of the Cross in imitation of Christ, and feeling remorse for our failures, it is much easier to make an external show of repentance than to internally repent. It is easier to hide behind a mere façade.
The religious leaders and the people alike who were listening to Joel did not necessarily know why the prophet had to talk to them this way. After all, they were going to the Temple and paying their tithes, fasting and publicly praying, were they not? So too, for the religious community of Christian leaders and ordinary faithful of today, we could be so engrossed in participating in all the right church rituals and religious institutions that we might very well have left our internal reality unattended. Even the circumstances under which the prophet Joel was raised up by God bear resemblances to our present times.
The nation of Judah was prospering and the people were experiencing easy life and self- security. As pride and careless invincibility insidiously set in, the people were poised between pride and fall when Joel, a man of deep spiritual concern, appeared on the scene. His task was to speak for God, to call them back to Him. He summoned the people to Jerusalem for a day of prayer before God and to hold a service of repentance, of heart-rending over and above mere clothes-tearing.
The prophet Joel demanded far more than a ritual or mere outward piety. In 5th century BCE as in 21st century AD, formal worship is easy, just as clothes-tearing does not hurt. True authenticity, on the other hand, requires one to agonise, for heart-tearing puts us on a different plane. Joel rejected what scholars today would call “cheap grace”. We need to break ourselves down, to hurt inside, so as to repent inside, for only then, do we begin to get to our core, to our ego-attachments, and to our true identity in God. At the very root of spiritual repentance, this is what is necessary for changing one’s life. Just as externality serves a fleeting ego-enhancement, internality is wrenching because it is ego-denying. And so the prophet Joel’s teaching is immensely useful today in dragging us back to face a reality-check:
- He insists that the test of true prayer is about what we tear.
- He insists that we move from a mere, external, ritualistic performance of our faith to the depth of our faith.
- He insists on the difference between “torn clothes” and “torn hearts”.
- He insists that we mend our ways and return to God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
In urging people’s return to God, Joel well knew the encouragement from the psalmist:
- “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleadings! If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered” (Psalm 130:1-4).
The last word of a merciful God is neither gloom nor darkness, but a word of mercy. The wonderful words descriptive of God in Joel 2:13 are taken from Exodus 34:6. These were the very words YHWH uttered to Moses on the sacred mountain. To these very same words the Israelites never cease to return whenever they wanted to express their faith in the deep love of their God. This God opens His gracious and compassionate heart to all, and anyone who opens their heart shall receive this divine mercy and unbreakable love. From Pope Francis, we come to learn a basic lesson, that is, this merciful God wants us to receive Him into our hearts so that we can help build up a merciful church. A merciful God wants to see a merciful Church.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, February 2018. All rights reserved.
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