The Difference Between Penance and Punishment

There is an old rabbinic story that speaks to the danger of being “unbroken.” It also illustrates the difference between penance and punishment. I am relating this story from memory and may have adapted it somewhat over the years, so if you know it in a different way, please be merciful! Here is (my version of) the story:

There once was a man who had violated the Sabbath against his will, because his carriage had broken down. Although he ran, striving to reach town before sundown, he was not able to do so. He arrived substantially after sundown, thus violating the ban on work by travelling farther than allowed on the Sabbath, which requires rest.

The young rabbi of the town, Rabbi Mikhal imposed a long and harsh penance on the man, so harsh that it affected his health. The man felt quite incapable of fulfilling it and despaired he would ever be free of his sin.

Hearing that the famed Rabbi Baal Shem Tov was visiting nearby the man sought his advice. The older rabbi replaced the severe penance given by the young Rabbi Mikhal, telling the man, “Carry a pound of candles to the house of prayer and have them lit for the Sabbath. Let that be your penance.” Surprised at the mildness of the penance, the man expressed disbelief. The old Shem Tov simply repeated, “Do as I say, that will be enough.” He then added, “Greet Rabbi Mikhal for me and extend my request that he join me at Chvostov where I will hold the coming Sabbath.”

Honored by the invitation Rabbi Mikhal made haste to Chvostov, but along the way a wheel broke on his carriage and he had to continue on foot. Though he hastened to arrive on time, even his youthful stamina could not overcome the distance, and he arrived well after dark on the Sabbath.

Entering the dwelling of Baal Shem Tov he stood numb and speechless, realizing the old Rabbi was well into the Sabbath prayers. Shem Tov looked up and spoke to him: “Good Sabbath, my sinless friend. You had never tasted the sorrow of the sinner, your heart had never throbbed with his despair—and so it was easy for your hand to deal out severe penance.”

The first lesson of the story is clear: Our mercy for others is often conditioned by our experience of our own need for mercy. Having experienced our own brokenness and inability to do what is right on every occasion, our longing for mercy is deepened and the greatness of the gift is more fully appreciated. This equips us to show mercy to others.

To be “broken” is a modern expression but it expresses an ancient truth. It speaks to the experience we have when we are finally confronted with our own sin or inadequacy, most often in a profound way. Perhaps we did something particularly humiliating or discouraging. It may even be publicly known. Perhaps we did something that had harmful effects on people we love or even on strangers. Perhaps we experienced a profound failure in an endeavor, a relationship, or a business matter. We may find ourselves in the awkward position of needing help from others or of needing forgiveness from them and God.

Things like this can feel crushing but can also be salutary. They are helpful if we see them through by seeking forgiveness, making amends where necessary, and finding help and healing. Above all, experiences like this can be salutary if they help us to realize that we are not invincible, flawless, or somehow less in need of grace and mercy.

People who are unbroken—like the young rabbi in the story—can easily be too severe, lack compassion, and be unforgiving. They are often poorly equipped to deal with people who struggle, especially those who struggle openly and in certain ways. Scripture says,

The sins of some men are obvious, going ahead of them to judgment; but the sins of others do not surface until later (1 Tim 5:24-25).

In other words, all of us need mercy, whether for obvious sins or more hidden ones, whether now or later. We do well to recognize this early in life, for Scripture warns,

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).

Yes, woe to the unbroken person who too easily imposes harsh punishments on others. It is a terrible strategy in life and leads to a day of judgment that will be hard to withstand.

Many years ago, when I was just about to be ordained a priest, my spiritual director said to me, “I pray that God will break your heart.” I remember being annoyed at what seemed a cruel prayer on the eve of my ordination.

Looking back, though, I understand what he meant. He detected a pride and a harshness in my spirit. At that point in my life I had spent five years studying the faith. I knew what was right, and by gosh it was time to unleash all this knowledge on a confused people who had been misled by weak clergy and faulty catechesis. Although I was intellectually aware that I was a sinner and imperfect, I was not experientially aware enough of this.

In my mid-thirties I experienced a failure in my first assignment as a pastor. I was embarrassed both publicly and personally. I felt broken. Looking back, I can truly say, “Glory Hallelujah!” We all need to be broken at some point. Everything needs a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in.

It is not wrong to know what is good and what is evil. It is not wrong to preach the truth with zeal and love. But an essential truth of the gospel is that God is rich in mercy, because we all fall short on our way to glory and perfection.

A second lesson from the story above is about the difference between penance and punishment. A penance is an act or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin. It is rooted in the Latin word paenitentia, which refers to sorrow or repentance for sin. The Latin root word is paene, meaning “nearly” or “almost.” Thus, paenitentia (to be penitent) means to have knowledge and sorrow that one has come up short or missed the mark somehow. A penance is a way to acknowledge a shortcoming and express sorrow for it; it is not so much a way to make up for sin and surely is not a way to purchase mercy. In the story above, the man was penitent. He acknowledged that he had fallen short. He did not arrogantly declare that there was nothing wrong with what he did even if some aspects were beyond his control. His sorrow did not need to be elicited; it was already present. Correction was not needed; he already knew that violating the Sabbath was wrong.

Punishment, on the other hand, is designed to cause some degree of pain or suffering in order to teach that something is wrong and/or elicit contrition, even if imperfect. Ideally punishment is used to teach the person by allowing him to experience the consequences of wrongdoing in a smaller way, so that he does not experience more dire consequences later.

In the story, the young rabbi used punishment where only penance was likely needed.

This is an important distinction for the Sacrament of Confession (sometimes called the Sacrament of Penance). The usual context of the celebration of this sacrament is that the person already feels sorrow and knows that what he has done is wrong. In such cases, the priest does not issue a punishment. Rather, he assigns a penance, usually a rather small or token act or prayer that signifies repentance or sorrow. While there is often some adjustment for serious sins, a penance in no way purchases forgiveness or perfectly outweighs the sin committed. Instead, it is a sign of sorrow and of our desire to do better in the future. The purpose of a penance is not to punish the penitent, who almost never needs that. The very fact that he is in the confessional usually illustrates that he acknowledges his sin and has sorrow over it. Only rarely does a priest need to be stern, if he discovers an impenitent attitude or an incomplete sorrow that might even seek to justify sin. Thus, penances, not punishments are issued in confession.

It is interesting what an ancient story about two rabbis can teach!

King David wrote the following psalm on mercy at a low point in his life: