Remorse, Repentance, and Forgiveness
By Rev Charles Rush
April 13, 1997
Luke 19: 1-10
ere is a cartoon from the
on my office door. It pictures God in heaven and before him is an
alumnus of Princeton University with his Princeton T Shirt on. God
says to him ‘Before entering these gates you must renounce all
earthly ties’. The caption is entitled
I think that fairly well sums up our position on repentance. We would
like to really change but we don’t. It is easier just to feel bad
for a while and continue in our old ways.
There are two stories that awakened my thinking on this subject. A
friend of mine hooked up with a notorious ‘green mailer’
right after he graduated from business school in the late 80’s.
These two were buying undervalued companies in the midwest, dismantling
them and selling the parts for a substantial profit. My friend was
playing golf one day with a group of us, stopping between holes to call
and close a deal. He was speaking to us in that bravado that
M.B.A.’s have in their twenties when they are making far too much
money for their age and in control of far more power than they have the
moral imagination to control. It was obvious that this deal my friend
was working on would reap him a handsome profit but it would also throw
the major business in a small town in the midwest into a tailspin,
possibly bankruptcy, and would leave lots of hard working folks bereft
of employment. One of the lawyers playing with us finally asked my
friend ‘Doesn’t your conscience ever bother you about what
you are doing? Do you ever feel guilty?’ You know you’re in
trouble when a lawyer is preaching to you about conscience.
He responded blithely ‘if it ever does I’ll go see the
Reverend here and he will forgive me.’ That comment really
smarted. I knew he was just teasing but part of me was worried. Could
it be that us liberals preach on grace, love, and forgiveness so much
more than responsibility and judgment that people really believe that
you can have forgiveness without repentance? Is that what we have
communicated to them?
I was in my twenties too and I didn’t quite know what to say
to my friend but I stopped him later and said ‘Do you really not
think about business ethics or the consequences of your deals?’
Almost instinctively he replied, ‘It is all about the bottom
line. If a deal figures out we do it, that’s all.’
I could only say ‘Your parents spent a lot of money to send
you to Dartmouth. And they took out loans so you could attend
Wharton. We expect more of you than that.’ And I walked away. I
realized that day that forgiveness without repentance is related to
moral and spiritual turpitude.
Another time, I was at a holiday celebration with another man who
had been married to a close friend of mine for twelve years. She had
been so good for this man and encouraged him to go to college and make
something of his life, find a vocation. They had a good relationship
for many years except that she could not get pregnant which presented a
We were outside the festive party and he began telling me that he
had met another woman at school. As they say in the bible, my
countenance fell, and I was gravely concerned. I asked him, ‘What
are you going to do?’
I don’t know’, he said.
Are you involved with this woman?’
Yes, and she is pregnant!’
We were silent for a moment and he began to weep. I felt
compassion for his situation and wanted to weep myself. But as we
continued to speak, it became obvious that he didn’t want to
really change anything about the situation. He wanted to stay with his
wife and he wanted to keep a relationship with his girlfriend and help
her bring her child into the world. I was nonplused.
My compassion turned to rage. He was continuing to weep and he
said to me, ‘I feel so bad, can you forgive me?’ I was
speechless. As I stared at him I thought to myself ‘I don’t
really care what you feel.’ Once again,
he wanted forgiveness without repentance.
If he felt bad enough about the issue that should be enough.
Where do we get this idea in the first place? There are two places
that I can think of principally that encourage a silly notion of
The first is a moribund sacramentalism. Some of us growing up in
the Catholic church learned this, not that the Church ever really
taught it, but we learned it anyway. As youngsters, we would feel
guilty about something we had done wrong, particularly about sex, and
we would go to the confessional. And we thought that if we simply said
the rosary 10 times like the priest told us (for our penance) that
somehow we were miraculously restored. That was it. It is not
surprising that these folks become spiritually cynical in their
thirties and forties because you know that this is not true.
The second is therapeutic abuse. Every therapist has a story to
tell about a client who came to them because they feel really bad about
something. They want to dissolve those bad feelings but they
don’t really want to address the problem that caused them in any
serious way. They want the therapist to tell them that really they are
okay as they are, that all people make mistakes, that you just have to
learn to live with them. They want to be validated that they are fine
the way they are. They want psychological forgiveness without
Both of these distortions place far too much emphasis on
It is interesting that remorse is not really much of a biblical
concept. Remorse is mostly a concept that we get from Greek tragedy
where people feel terribly bad about a situation they find themselves
in and the emotion is a principal point of identification with the
In the bible, we are taught about repentance. The bible is not
emotionless about sin, people do cry and rend their clothes, even put
ashes on their heads when they realize the error of their ways. But
the focus is not on their feelings, the focus is on a change of
) literally means ‘a change of behavior’. It is a turning
from our destructive ways or a returning to the way of God from which
we have departed. Alcoholics Anonymous has this right,
the object is to stay sober; we don’t really care how you feel
after a drinking binge. In AA people will deal with your feelings with
compassion but the point is to stay sober and to make the changes in
your life to make sure you stay sober. That is what repentance is all
The story of Zaccheus is a hyperbole of what real repentance is all
about. We know from Rabbinic tradition that in Israel when you ripped
someone off you were to pay them back 100% of the loss plus 20% for
their suffering (120%). In the bible, you generally give a tithe to
God of 10%. But if you make more money than you know what to do with,
you should give another 10% to the poor.
So we have this character who is a tax collector whose name is
Zaccheus, which means ‘righteous one’. This is a little
biblical humor, kind of like a Washington politician named
‘integrity’. Jesus says to Zaccheus ‘Righteous one,
today salvation has entered your house.’
Effusively, the little man blurts out ‘I won’t just give
120% to the people I’ve ripped off, I’ll give them 400%. And
I won’t give the poor simply 10% but 50% of all that I have. How
different that response is from our ordinary response. Most of us
think that divine grace somehow takes all of the moral tension out of
our life since we are accepted carte blanche. In our story today, the
moral is nearly opposite of that. Here forgiveness and grace, free the
‘righteous one’ to really become
righteous and give away more than he ever dreamed of giving away. He
becomes free to become radically different, to really change, in other
words, to really repent.
In Anne Tyler’s novel
a sophisticated college kid has done something horribly wrong and is
feeling absolutely terrible about it. He just can’t get rid of
this terrible feeling so one day he is walking down the street and he
comes to a store front church named ‘The Church of the Second
Chance’. He is strangely drawn to walk in and join the service
which he does. During the prayer time, he asks to be forgiven for this
thing he has done wrong and the whole congregation lifts up his
petition. After the service is over and almost everyone has left, he
runs into the Minister, Reverend Emmet. Reverend Emmet says "I hope
your prayer was answered this evening."
"Thanks," Ian said. "It was a really...interesting service."
Reverend Emmett studied him. (His skin was an unhealthy shade of
white, although that could have been the fluorescent lighting.) "But
your prayer," he said finally. "Was there any response?"
"Did you get a reply?"
"Well, not exactly."
"I see," Reverend Emmett said. He watched an aged couple assist
each other through the door - the very last to leave. Then he said,
"What was it that you needed forgiven?"
Ian couldn’t believe his ears. Was this even legal, inquiring
into a person’s private prayers? He ought to spin on his heel and
walk out. But instead his heart began hammering as if he were about to
do something brave. In a voice not quite his own, he said, "I caused
my brother to, um, kill himself."
Reverend Emmett gazed at him thoughtfully.
"I told him his wife was cheating on him," Ian said in a rush, "and
now I’m not even sure she was. I mean I’m pretty sure she
did in the past, I know I wasn’t
wrong, but...So he drove into a wall. And then his wife died of
sleeping pills and I guess you could say I caused that too, more or
He paused, because Reverend Emmett might want to disagree here.
(Really Lucy’s death was just indirectly caused by Ian, and maybe
not even that. It might have been accidental.) But Reverent Emmett
only rocked from heel to toe.
"So it looks as if my parents are going to have to raise the
children," Ian said. Had he mentioned there were children?
"Everything’s been dumped on my mom and I don’t think
she’s up to it - her or my dad, either one. I don’t think
they’ll ever be the same, after this. And my sister’s busy
with her own kids and I’m away at college most of the time..."
In the light of Reverend Emmett’s blue eyes - which had the
clear transparency of those marbles that Ian used to call gingerales -
he began to relax. "So anyhow," he said, "that’s why I asked for
that prayer. And I honestly believe it might have worked. Oh,
it’s not like I got an answer in plain English, of course,
but...don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?"
"Goodness, no," Reverend Emmett said briskly.
Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d
misunderstood. He said, "I’m
"But...I thought that was kind of the point," Ian said. "I thought
God forgives everything."
"He does," Reverend Emmett said. "But you can’t just say,
‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why, anyone could do that much! You
have to offer reparation - concrete, practical reparation, according to
the rules of our church."
"But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s
something nothing will fix?"
"Well, that’s where Jesus come in, of course."
Another itchy word: Jesus. Ian averted his eyes.
"Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be," Reverend
Emmett told him. "He helps with what you can’t undo. But only
to undo it."
"Tried? Tried how?" Ian asked. "What would it take?"
Reverend Emmett started collecting hymnals for the chair seats.
Apparently he was so certain of the answer, he didn’t even have to
think about it. "Well, first you’ll need to see to those
children," he said.
"Okay. But...see to them in what way, exactly?"
"Why, raise them, I suppose."
"Huh?" Ian said. "But I’m only a freshman!"
Reverend Emmett turned to face him, hugging the stack of hymnals
against his concave shirt front.
"I’m away in Pennsylvania most of the time!" Ian told him.
"Then maybe you should drop out."
"Drop out of college?"
Ian stared at him.
"This is some kind of test, isn’t it?" he said finally.
Reverend Emmett nodded, smiling. Ian sagged with relief.
"It’s God’s test," Reverend Emmett told him.
"God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm
"But He wouldn’t really make me follow through with it," Ian
"How else would He know, then?"
"Wait," Ian said. "You’re saying God would want me to give up
my education. Change all my parents’ plans for me and give up my
"Yes, if that’s what’s required," Reverend Emmett said.
"But that’s crazy! I’d have to be crazy!"
"Let us not love in word, neither in tongue,’ " Reverend
Emmett said, " ‘but in deed and in truth.’ First John three,
"I can’t take on a bunch of kids! Who do you think I am?
I’m nineteen years old!" Ian said. "What kind of a cockeyed
"It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness,"
Reverend Emmett said. "It’s the religion of the Second Chance."
Reverend Emmet is right
Grace comes over us, not so that we are released from our obligations;
rather, it frees us up to do what we wouldn’t have done otherwise,
gives us courage to go make things right as best we can.
When I was a child in the South, they taught us that we needed
salvation in order to enter heaven. It was the ticket to eternity.
Obviously, it is a good deal more than that. Jesus says
‘Salvation has entered your house
day. It is intrinsic to who we are and what we are about. Our soul
formation doesn’t begin in the after-life, it is right around us.
What we do, how we live, matters. It forms who we are (in relation to
ourselves, to others, to God).
Forgiveness is what happens in the midst of repentance, in the
midst of making things right. And it comes from those we have
wronged. Jesus said on a couple of occasions "What you bind on earth
is bound in heaven". This is actually a profound observation about our
spiritual life. We know how relationships can harden when we refuse to
repent and others refuse to forgive us. Life can become deadened in a
short time. Likewise, how profound a new relationship can become when
repentance and forgiveness take place. The relationship goes to a
whole new level.
In the Movie ‘The Mission’, Robert De Niro is a
conquistador who ruthlessly slaughters whole villages of Indians in
South America in pursuit of gold. In the middle of his life, he
becomes convicted and changes his life. He goes to a priest and begins
a process of radical change.
As penance, DeNiro takes a great wad of war armor and weapons and
bundles it in a great net. He drags it through the jungle for miles
and miles behind a missionary group that is headed back to one of the
villages that DeNiro had tried to exterminate earlier in his life.
At the very end of the trip, they have to climb a daunting 300 ft.
cliff, up a huge waterfall. DeNiro inches up, a bit at a time, with
this huge ball of armor behind him, weighing him down. After hours of
work he finally makes it to the top. As he climbs over the edge, he is
met by the chief of the tribe who is facing him with a machete in
hand. DeNiro is weak and defenseless, his fate is in the chiefs hand.
The chief approaches him slowly and you are not sure what is going to
happen. The chief lifts his machete and hacks the cord in two and the
huge ball of armor falls over the cliff, 300 feet into the river below,
with a crash.
But that is not the end of the movie, nor should it be
theologically speaking. DeNiro joins the Indian community and begins
to restore the community from the wanton destruction that he and his
men had earlier wreaked. In so doing, he becomes truly free.
He lives out forgiveness through a change of behavior, through
restoring and not destroying.
This is the profound meaning of forgiveness in the scriptures. Let
us, this week, be about restoring what we have destroyed. Amen.
© 1997 .
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