It's essential that believing people have an opportunity to decide. Faith revolves around a series of decisions.
In Sunday's gospel (Mt 21:28-32), Jesus teaches that people can make the wrong choice now, the right one later. God always holds the door of choice open. Just as the second son rethinks his initial refusal to go into his father's vineyard and eventually decides to go, so Jesus reminds His audience "that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you."
These public "sinners" originally chose not to follow Yahweh. But, converted through John the Baptizer's preaching and example they've now decided to reverse their original choice.
The problem is that the "good folk" refuse to acknowledge certain individuals' change of behavior. They criticize the converted tax collectors and prostitutes while ignoring that they themselves might have agreed verbally and ritually to do what Yahweh asks but have never actually carried out their commitment.
They insist on limiting sinners to their original choice, refusing to acknowledge that those who had at first walked away from God are now the only people actually doing what God wants.
Jesus condemns such hypocrites with the harshest phrase He ever uses to condemn anyone: "You did not repent." Repentance is essential for being a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus certainly found support for His Gospel of repentance in the Hebrew Scriptures. He probably often reflected on and taught from passages like the first reading (Ez 18:25-28). In it, the prophet encourages his community in exile to repent.
"If the wicked turn from the wickedness they have committed, do what is right and just, they shall preserve their life; since they have turned away from all the sins they committed, they shall surely live, they shall not die." Jesus' whole ministry revolves around giving people an opportunity to turn.
Ironically, after Jesus' death and resurrection, the early Christian community stopped going to the Hebrew Scriptures for examples of repentance. They began using Jesus as the example. (The late Rudolph Bultmann perfectly described the early Church's situation: "Once Jesus rose from the dead, the preacher became the preached.")
No one employs the example of Jesus choosing repentance better than Paul. Using lines from a hymn which existed long before he penned his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle reminds his community of their obligation to look to others' interests rather than their own (Phil 2:1-11). As the hymn states, they need only zero in on Jesus as their model for such behavior.
"Though He was in the form of God," the song proclaims, "He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave."
Accustomed to viewing Jesus through the theology of John the Evangelist, we automatically hear these words against the background of Jesus' pre-existence as God. Yet many Pauline scholars believe this picture of Jesus emptying Himself would have made an even deeper impression on the Philippians if Paul were thinking only about Jesus' earthly existence.
According to Genesis I, every human is created in the image and likeness of God. Paul logically believes that Jesus, as human, also entered life in the form of God. Yet, at one point of His earthly existence, He decided not to fall back on that prerogative. He freely choose to become completely one with the most lowly human: a slave. Only because Jesus decided to accept such a demeaning form did God highly exalt Him and bestow on Him the name above every other name (Yahweh).
If Jesus couldn't avoid the faith-obligation of choosing, why would we think we can be people of faith today without repentance?