Making Things Right

Last Friday night, I spoke at our church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry. I gotta say, I love this community of people. There’s something refreshing about meeting with a group of people that starts with “I’m a mess,” rather than, “let me pretend that I’m all put together.” This is a rough sketch of some of the things I said.

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Step 8 (Alcoholics Anonymous): We made a list of all people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Principle 6 (Celebrate Recovery): Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I have done to others except when to do so would harm others.

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I remember being taught growing up that all sin was a sin against God, that ultimately it wasn’t really about the “other,” but rather that I had offended a “thrice-Holy God” who couldn’t stomach my sin. There wasn’t much teaching that I remember from my childhood about making amends. There was a whole lot more about making sure we had squared up with God than making amends to people.

Since then I’ve talked to Catholics and learned that there’s more language in Catholicism about making amends – about doing penance for our sin. But again, saying “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” is more about shoring up one’s relationship with God than about making amends with a fellow human being.

But the geometry of the cross hints at something more. Of course there’s a vertical axis – but there’s also a horizontal one as well. To put a finer point on it, my sin hurts the people I love. Left unchecked, unamended, ignored, my sin erodes my relationships with people.

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The famous story of the Lilliputian Zacchaeus is particularly instructive here. In response to Jesus calling out his name in the midst of the crowd, of inviting himself to dinner at the house of a known “sinner,” Zacchaeus offers to give away half his wealth and four times whatever he has cheated anyone out of.

A simple “sorry, my bad,” doesn’t suffice.

Feeling bad about it doesn’t do anything either.

Nor does confessing it to God and saying special prayers.

The story of Zacchaeus is that when he is confronted by love (more on that in a minute), he responds by making things right with the people he’s hurt, to the best of his ability. Yes, the vertical is important — and Jesus declares Zaccheaus to be a “true child of Abraham” — but Jesus’ declaration is in response to Zaccheaus making amends.

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When I teach, I prefer to dialogue with my audience. I just don’t believe that I’m the full embodiment of wisdom on any given passage or that the Holy Spirit speaks exclusively to me. So, on Friday night, I opened up the floor and we had a conversation. And one of the attendees pointed out this startling realization: Zaccheaus doesn’t make amends because Jesus confronts him. Jesus doesn’t demand that Zaccheaus make amends. Rather, Jesus simply moves toward Zaccheaus in love. He calls him by name, invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home (a BIG deal in a hospitality-conscious, honor society), and Zacchaeus responds to love.

We think the we get the right behaviour out of people when we shame them, make them feel guilty, harangue them, yell at them, and put pressure on them to do the right thing. But Zacchaeus does the “right thing” when he’s confronted by the love of Jesus, the acceptance of Jesus just as he is.

We’re loved, then we change.

Too often — especially in religious institutions — we want change first, then we’ll offer love, which is just the opposite of how Jesus interacts with people throughout the gospels.

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Hmmm. Good stuff to think about, I think.

I walked away from Friday night surprisingly challenged and moved. It’s funny sometimes — when you’re “the speaker” and you open up the floor, you end up getting more from it than the people you’re speaking to, I think.

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