Proper 27 (Nov. 6-12)
Texts: Mark 12:38-44;
Heb. 9:24-28; 1 Kings 17:8-16
FORGIVENESS: THE WAY BETWEEN SELF-JUSTIFICATION AND DESPAIR
In the monthly newsletter of our Greater Milwaukee Synod, Bishop Peter Rogness began his column this month with a story from his youngest daughter Rachel. (1) She’s a freshman music major at the University of Minnesota, but so far nothing has gotten her going like her Philosophy class. She sent the bishop and his wife a letter after the first week. Somewhat condensed, it went like this:
The first day our professor explained we’d be studying philosophy and ethics. He said that we’d learn that people at different times and places think about right and wrong differently. For instance, he said, he was from Texas, and has learned Texans think differently from Minnesotans. A good example was his experience when he came to interview with President Yudolf for his job. He bought a new suit, new shoes, was plenty early, so he went walking around Lake Harriet. He came on a woman hollering from a 3rd floor window — people were looking up at her — she was gesturing hysterically toward a toddler wading into the water, wanting someone in the crowd of people to go in and pull her away from the water. The Prof. explained that he recognized it would have been a nice thing for him to do, but that it wasn’t wrong for him not to do it, especially since he had a lot riding on this interview (career, new clothes, etc.), and there were plenty of other people who could have gotten the girl. While going into the water might have been nice, he wasn’t responsible. Unfortunately, he said, the child drowned(!), and he was surprised that the police who came angrily blamed him.
Rachel said the class exploded — kids couldn’t believe he would defend his actions — some kids were considering dropping the class rather than have him as a teacher of ethics. He ended the discussion by handing out an article that was their assignment for two days later.
The article had been written in 1970, in the midst of the famine and mass starvation in Bangladesh. The writer was arguing the moral position that said if people have the possibility of preventing suffering at a cost that is less than the suffering being alleviated, they have a moral obligation to do so. He discussed factors working against this position, [the kinds of excuses we make for not helping]. Rachel found the article compelling. She also began to suspect she and the others had been had!
Sure enough — two days later they walked into class and learned there never had been a child in the water, no new suit, no drowning. The professor had agreed with all the arguments the students had made [against him] that first day. ‘So why,’ he asked, ‘does a wealthy society like ours do so little to alleviate human suffering in the world??? And what’s our moral obligation?’
Wow! That professor sure knows how to challenge his students! He spins a parable to suggest that when we know about people in need around the world and have the means to help them, it is akin to standing by and watching a drowning child. But does he know, too, how guilty such suggestions can make us feel? What does one do with the guilt that gets piled up by the fact that we do relatively little to help those in need? I’m afraid that the challenge he poses us generally leaves us two options: justify ourselves or despair. Either we find ways of justifying our non-action in reaching out to help those less fortunate than us, or we are stuck with a guilt that is overwhelming and demoralizing. Either way, we end up doing nothing.
Or is there another way, somewhere in between? I think that there is. But it’s a way that that professor couldn’t really share with his students in his setting at a state school. He might suggest ethical approaches that can help give some guidance, but I don’t believe they can be wholly adequate to the pitfall of eventually falling one way or the other: self-justification or despair.
The only way which I believe is ultimately adequate is the Christian way of forgiveness. With the way of forgiveness in Jesus Christ we can first of all acknowledge the depth of our sin. We can allow ourselves to recognize that we fail to reach out to those around us in need, that we fail to rely on the abundance that God has created in this world so that we might work harder to ensure that everyone has enough to live. No matter what philosophy or ethics, I don’t think we can allow ourselves to fully admit our sinfulness without God’s forgiveness up-front as a free gift of grace.
Forgiveness is then the beginning of being able to respond. Each of us is promised in our baptisms that God pours the Holy Spirit upon us so that we might be empowered to begin to do something. We acknowledge our guilt, but in Christ’s forgiveness we don’t have to be overwhelmed or demoralized by it. We can begin to act anew. We can find ourselves empowered to share God’s abundance and love with others. We can begin to live a life of discipleship to Jesus, a life of giving ourselves to others. We are promised that we can begin to make a difference, as Christ himself made all the difference, so that one day he will come again and human suffering will be no more. That’s the promise! And God keeps his promises.
With that proclamation of Good News, let’s take a closer look at the depth of our sin. Our second lesson from Hebrews speaks in a language which was very familiar to its first readers, but quite strange to us. It is the language of ritual blood sacrifice. Notice how that original form of sacrifice was something quite different than what we have come to mean when we say “sacrifice.” Hebrews spells it out for us: That original form of sacrifice spilled someone else’s blood and had to be repeated over and over again in order to justify the people. Christ transformed that old sacrifice forever by allowing his blood to be spilled instead of someone else’s. He offered himself, he gave up himself, and changed the meaning of the word “sacrifice.”
But we miss the point if we think that the old, original “sacrifice” of allowing someone else’s blood to be spilled is a thing of the past. I’m afraid the old kind of sacrifice is still alive and well. Hebrews is bold enough to simply call sacrifice sin. Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Remove sin. How? Because the old sacrifice is the very shape of our sin. Understanding the depth of our sin means understanding that our way of life is built on allowing a few to die to save the many. This is the logic of sacrifice, for example, which justifies allowing some people to die in poverty and starvation so that many others can continue in their lives of luxury. Our lives of relative wealth depends on allowing others to die in need. This is the old logic of sacrifice which Jesus came to transform through the offering of himself.
Rachel Rogness’ philosophy professor has given us a pretty good look at the logic of the old sacrifice. We don’t have to directly spill someone else’s blood anymore. But we do have our justifications and our institutions that allow us to let others suffer when we have the means to help them. We sacrifice them by our inactions. Knowing that there are people starving across the world and having the capability of feeding them is not significantly different than knowing a young child is in danger in the water and having the ability to save her. But like the high priests of old, we make those sacrifices of others and have our justifications well-rehearsed. We must use them over and over again in order to justify ourselves.
Jesus recognizes this at the beginning of our gospel lesson in his harsh words against the Pharisees. They ‘devour the widows houses,’ he says. Did those Pharisees literally take those widows houses, do you think? I don’t. The Pharisees were the upstanding citizens of their day, wealthy leaders whom others looked up to, envied and admired. No, like us today, those Pharisees devoured the widows houses by their inactivity. They had the means to reach out and help them, but instead they led lives focused on following rules so that they could continually feel justified about themselves. Theirs was also a way of life that sacrifices others by the failure to help when possible.
What we haven’t yet seen is that sins of omission are generally related to sins of commission. We might more often sacrifice others by our neglect, but, usually under the same kind of justifications, we occasionally will actually spill someone else’s blood. War is the most common modern form of this sacrifice. But the Law sometimes kills, too. That’s, of course, what happened to Jesus himself. He came to expose our games by sacrificing himself to our ancient forms of sacrifice. He allowed his blood to be spilled by the rules of our games of self-justification in order that we might finally see that God has a different way for us, a way not of having to continually justify ourselves, but a way of falling on the free grace of God’s forgiveness. It’s only then we can begin to steer the course between self-justification and despair.
Bishop Rogness summed this all up well in his newsletter column, I think:
We Christians know this is where our sinful nature comes in, and we find all kinds of reasons and barriers that keep us from doing this. The full moral response we should make is pretty far beyond us. I think God knows that about us, and gives us some steps we can handle.
The most fundamental is the tithe. This has never been a fund-raising gimmick, but a posture we assume toward life, an exercise we rehearse every time we receive anything, in which we demonstrate (mostly to ourselves) that we don’t live for ourselves alone, but for God and others.
Another gift God gives us is the suffering neighbors themselves….
Suffering neighbors as a gift? The bishop goes on to talk about the opportunities we have to reach out to those in need and the blessings that brings to all of us.
The aspect of this that I think we most often miss is how those in need teach us. Part of our sin is that we are so busy justifying ourselves that we miss God’s hand in things. We so often assume scarcity as part of our games of justifying our hoarding more than we need. We fail to recognize the grace of abundance and rely on it. Many people in need are not so similarly burdened by those games we play. They are so far outside them that they can actually see God’s abundance and teach us how to see it, too. We can look to poor people like the widow in this morning’s gospel, for example, who gave her whole living. Jesus lifted up the fact that she could teach a lesson about the true nature of abundance to those who gave relatively little out of their abundance.
Or consider Oseola McCarty. She just died last year at the age of 91. She was an African-American woman from Mississippi, who earned a living by washing and ironing other people’s clothes. McCarty, who never married, was in the 6th grade when she had to leave school and take over her mother’s laundry business while she cared for a sick aunt. “All my classmates had gone off and left me so I didn’t go back,” she said. “I just washed and ironed.” She has never had a car. Only recently, at the urging of bank personnel, did she buy a window air conditioner for her home. McCarty’s arthritis forced her to retire in December of ’94 at the age of 86.
McCarty scrimped and saved, however, until she was able to leave $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to set up scholarships for other needy African Americans. Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, Ted Turner, a multi-billionaire, gave away a billion dollars. He said, ‘If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.’
“I want to help somebody’s child go to college,” Oseola said. “I just want it to go to someone who will appreciate it and learn. I can’t do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. I wish I could do more. But what I can do I will do.” Amen, Oseola, Amen!
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus & Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 11-12, 2000
1. Peter Rogness, … from Twelve Twelve , a monthly newsletter published by the Greater Milwaukee Synod (1212 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, WI 53215), November 2000.