For Christians, our relationship with God is the most important one in our lives. This relationship is the first one we think of on waking, the last one on our mind when we sleep, and the one we return to again and again throughout the day as we live, move, and have our being in this world. God knows us better and loves us more than we can imagine.
God has also been clear that our relationships with other people and with the rest of God’s creation are important. In fact, these are like mirrors for our relationship with God. God loves all of God’s creation just as much as God loves each of us. We all hope that other people will treat the people, places, and things that we love with kindness and care. God’s hope is the same. That each of us would treat the rest of God’s creation—all of its people, places, and things—with the same kindness and care.
Many of us know the passage from Deuteronomy, often used as a summary of the Law, that says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” This ancient teaching combined with Jesus’s description of the judgement of the nations, including “...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” leaves very little wiggle room for understanding how God intends for us to live with and treat one another.
Of course, no human is perfect and we are susceptible to sin. We sometimes do and say things that are selfish, do not fully consider the other, and fall short of the standard of love to which we are called. Our great capacity for love—undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts God gave humanity—also makes us vulnerable to hurt, especially from those we love.
Today’s readings all have something to say about these relationships of love and the sin and hurt that inevitably appear in them from time to time. Exodus and the psalm speak to God’s judgement of those who hurt others willfully and unrepentantly; those who would treat their siblings as property or expendable commodities. Paul, in his letter to the churches of Rome, describes how God’s commandments to humanity through the generations have not been simple, arbitrary laws, but descriptions on how love appears in good, healthy relationships.
The passage from Matthew’s telling of the Gospel is a very important one. It describes how we are to respond when someone hurts us. When sin infects a relationship, just like a virus in a body, there are ways to address it and encourage healing. Jesus describes, very briefly, a graduated process of making the one who has done hurt aware of the consequences of their words and deeds, hoping that they will confess, make amends, repent, and undertake a conversion of life. We also hope that reconciliation in the damaged relationship is possible. This is a process quite different from the most common path in the secular world today, which is to avoid accountability, apologize if caught, and then hope that the whole situation is forgotten as quickly as possible. We watch this almost every day with celebrities, politicians, and other public figures.
When someone approaches one and tells them that something they said or did hurt the other, one must take the statement seriously. Assuming that this is truthful, the first step is to confess. To admit that yes, one understands now how their words and actions hurt. Intentions matter, but the consequences of words and actions are key here. One may not mean to hurt, but if one does, one must be accountable and responsible.
One must seek to make amends for the hurt done. To repair the damage. This may be simple enough or may be the work of a lifetime. It may be work that will not be completed in this lifetime. In such cases the work is not one’s to finish, but it is also not one’s to neglect. (Thank you, Rabbi Tarfon for that wisdom.)
One must repent. To sincerely grieve the harm done and promise that, if in a similar situation again in future, that different choices will be made. This remorse for the harm one has caused is an important part of accountability. Repentance is the first part of a promise made to God, to ourselves, and to others that we will not repeat our mistakes.
Finally, one sets about a process called conversion of life. This is the long and difficult work of changing habits, patterns, and thinking so that the sins of the past will not trip one up again. It is part of the process of allowing God to transform, heal, and transfigure us into the person one is meant to be. Conversion of life is a long process and a great deal of work. The good news is that conversion need not be complete to be effective and substantial; progress on the path is noticeable, good, and holy.
Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel passage that this work may be possible between two people, or it may require a whole community. Some hurts are too great for the victim to confront the one who hurt them. Sometimes the one who hurt another cannot see at first what they have done and others must speak the truth to them in love. Accountability and reparations are important parts of resolving hurts for Christians, but we always act with care for the hurt and healing of everyone injured as our hope.
Whenever repentance and reparation come up, forgiveness is sure to be a part of the conversation. And, so often, especially in certain Christian circles, forgiveness is held up as work for victims to do. Forgiveness is heard as an absolution for or condonation of what was done to them, even when repentance and repair have not even begun.
This is not what Jesus and Peter mean when they discuss forgiveness in the verses immediately following today’s Gospel passage. The famous “How many times must I forgive,” question and the even more famous “Seventy time seven times” response from Jesus. Judgement and forgiveness of sin is God’s work and I am very glad to leave it to God. Sometimes we may be able to say to someone who has hurt us, “It is now okay. I’ve healed and our relationship can begin to heal, too.” That is a beautiful form of forgiveness.
But sometimes, forgiveness is not that kind of absolution. Sometimes the hurt is too great and the relationship between wrongdoer and victim cannot be repaired. Or perhaps the wrongdoer is not present to make reparations, to confess, to do their part of this healing work. In these cases, forgiveness might be understood as the victim saying “I am done carrying the burden that another’s wrongdoing gave me. I will live with scars and memories but I will not continue to live as a victim. I put the burden down here and walk ahead without it.”
God, help us all in that work. To realize that the one who hurt you cannot or will not do what you need to heal well and to have to find a different way forward. It is painful. It is exasperating. It is infuriating. But we must find ways to put those things down, not for the sake of the wrongdoer, but for ourselves. Anger and pain and shame and all of the other consequences of being hurt can be helpful in the right time and place, but if we choose to carry them for ever they can consume us. Like viruses, they can spread from us to the lives of others. This, too, is a transformation but not the sort that God wishes for us.
With tragic frequency, people in Christian communities hurt one another. In this very parish. Sometimes the hurts are great, sometimes they are small. Some are new and some are old. Whether great or small, new or old, I implore you not to carry your hurts alone. Turn to those who love you and ask for help and support in seeking repair and healing.Do n ot carry your guilt alone, either. If you have hurt someone and do not know how to begin to repair that relationship, ask for help and support.
Come seeking the sacraments of healing and reconciliation; these are ancient traditions given to us by our ancestors in the faith to help us in this work. If your spirit is heavy and unsettled, ask trusted elders and clergy to listen and for their counsel. Bring your hurts and your guilt to the altar and offer it to God that they may begin to be transformed. Confess your hurt and your guilt and allow God to share their burden.
For your own sake, for the sake of all of your siblings in Christ, for the sake of God’s great love, begin this healing today.