St Etheldreda's

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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Unfinished business

Posted March 17, 2013

There are several questions that arise from this passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3-11).  An obvious one for us is: How come it’s only the woman who gets it in the neck, whereas the bloke gets off scot free?  Another problem is: Granted that the woman receives Jesus’ forgiveness, why are we are not actually told that she was sorry?   Presumably the people who compiled the Lectionary chose this passage for a Sunday in Lent because Lent is about repentance.  But they seem not to have noticed that the passage contains not a word about repentance.  But what concerns me most is that when Jesus says ‘Go and sin no more’, he doesn’t add: ‘And I will see to it that all the hurt and damage you have done to your husband and your children, and all the hurt and damage you have done to your lover’s wife and their children, is miraculously undone.’

The fact that Jesus does not say this reminds us that whereas divine indulgence can repair the hurt and damage we have done to our souls, it does not automatically repair the hurt and the damage that certain kinds of sin do to other people.  Forgiveness may inspire us to mend our ways but it does nothing to mend the damage we have done.

Infidelity in marriage is a clear case in point.  Maybe if you are truly repentant a spouse will come round to granting you genuine forgiveness, the children will have their security restored to them, and somehow, hopefully, God will mop it all up over time, and the harm will be reversed.  But in the meantime, the damage remains: it is not undone by our repentance nor by God’s forgiveness, and it may never be undone in this life.  You may forgive your child for taking a hammer to your most precious pearl necklace: but the necklace is now shattered beyond repair and no amount of repentance and forgiveness will bring it back.

This applies not just to infidelity in marriage: it applies also to many other kinds of injustice, like, for example, destroying someone’s good name, sowing hatred in your community, inflicting sexual, psychological and emotional abuse: not to mention murdering or mutilating someone, or otherwise causing them serious physical harm.  There are few sins that affect only the sinner without at the same time causing some degree of hurt to others.  Most sins cannot be privatized.  It is an immature, churchy kind of morality that attempts to privatize them.  One of the reasons for the negligence of some church leaders in child abuse cases is that they saw certain actions merely as offences against the personal chastity of the perpetrators, and were quite oblivious to the harm done to their victims.

All this must give us pause for thought, particularly us Catholics, because we believe that (assuming real regret and genuine repentance) forgiveness is readily and repeatedly available to us, and in such a concrete form, in the words of sacramental absolution.  And we are right to believe that.  Only, it is not as simple as that, for the words of absolution do not undo the consequences of our wrongdoing in other people’s lives.  Sin is rarely victimless: and the forgiveness of the sinner does nothing to heal the injuries done to his victims or to alleviate their sufferings.

So where does all that leave us?  It must mean that God’s forgiveness presupposes a determination on our part to repair the damage we have done or to offer proper restitution.  Even as children we all knew that going to Confession and confessing our sins absolutely required us to restore those sugared almonds that we stole from our big sister, or to compensate her loss with something equally vital to her well being.  Restitution is usually a fairly straightforward matter when it is a question of stealing material things. But restitution is not so easy when the good we have violated is another person’s integrity, his marriage, his good name; his mental and emotional well-being; his entitlement to respect and to good standing in the community; his peace of mind and his right to an untroubled future.  We may indeed have regretted such actions and mentioned them in Confession and received absolution: but the sad thing is that in such cases we are often far less aware that that is not the end of the story than we were as children with our ill-gotten sugared almonds.

The moral of the story is that when our words and actions have caused harm, then no amount of repentance and forgiveness dispenses us from doing everything in our power to put things right: to repair what can be repaired or somehow to redress the hurt.  A public apology, for instance, at the very least, to someone whose good name you have besmirched; frank admission of guilt when your lies have cast aspersions on someone’s integrity, or lost him his job, or damaged his health; costly acts of kindness when you have grievously hurt someone’s feelings; humbly begging forgiveness from him just as you have humbly begged forgiveness in the confessional; generous gestures of reconciliation and genuine self-humbling when your pride or selfishness has sullied a relationship or poisoned a community.  If we are unwilling to do our best to repair the harm, that must surely show that we repented only in words, not in reality.  The Church’s power of forgiveness is mysterious and divine.  But it is not magic.  It doesn’t operate without real repentance.

And then, what are we to do when the harm we have caused others is incapable of being repaired, try as we may – the shattered necklace scenario?   We have to hope that, assuming our genuine regret and repentance, at the dawn of eternity God will repair all the damage we have done and obliterate all the hurt we have caused, will somehow bring good out of evil – all this in addition to purifying our souls.  But until then the damage remains, and it won’t do to shrug it off just because we cannot repair it.  We are still in that person’s debt even if we cannot repay him.  God’s forgiveness surely requires us to pray for him, earnestly and long-term; to turn our regret for our own actions into a longing for his well-being; to become the opposite kind of person to the one we were when we did the deed; to ‘enlarge the spaces of charity’ in our hearts; to be generous with others, and far more generous than we would otherwise have been, in the hope that our growth in God’s goodness will also somehow benefit the person we have harmed.  Perhaps that is the way God will bring good out of evil, in his own way and in his own time.  That is the best we can do in the shattered necklace scenario.

‘Go and sin no more’ is certainly what God expects of us.  But it is not all that he expects of us.  For sheer grace always brings with it unfinished business.

Fr Tom Deidun


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