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Remorse, Repentance, and Forgiveness

By Rev Charles Rush

April 13, 1997

Luke 19: 1-10

T h
ere is a cartoon from the New Yorker 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 Tough Choices. 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 challenge.

       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 repentance.

       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 repentance.

       Both of these distortions place far too much emphasis on remorse. 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 audience.

       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 behavior.

       Repentance ( Metanoia ) 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 about.

       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 radically 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 St. Maybe 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 totally 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 less..."

       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 not forgiven?"

       "Oh, no."

       "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 after you’ve tried 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?"


       "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 you’ve done."

       "But He wouldn’t really make me follow through with it," Ian said.

       "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 education."

       "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, eighteen."


       "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 religion is this?"

       "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 this 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.


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