Tag Archives: forgiveness

Jesus Pulls a Fast One

24 Aug

So, there I am, at a weekday Mass, mind wandering as usual (“Focus, man, focus! You’re at the threshold of heaven, and, um,…what does that guy’s t-shirt say?”), and we get to the Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Right, makes sense. There’s a progression here that both just and prudent – similar to what we do in our nursing program when there’s a complaint about a grade. It’s a subsidiarity thing: Start at the lowest level, closest to the source of the problem, and progress up the chain of command until…

Hey! Wait a doggone minute – hold on there! Did Jesus sneak one past us in that Gospel? The ol’ switcheroo perhaps? A little New Covenant flimflam?

I think so – see if you agree.

Bernardo_Strozzi_-_Christ_and_the_Samaritan_Woman_-_WGA21931The dodge comes in the last line: “…as you would a Gentile of a tax collector.” It’s no secret that this is biblical code for the shunned and disdained – the first century Jewish equivalent of an untouchable caste. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus instructs his followers to treat as outliers those of their number who persistently refuse correction – to be avoided, that is, and held in contempt. Like Gentiles. And tax collectors.

But remember how Jesus treats those guys? Daniel Harrington, S.J., noted this glaring disconnect in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

The designation of the excommunicated member as a Gentile or a tax collector in verse 17 is odd in view of Jesus’ openness to both groups.

Take the Gentiles, for example, the “non-Jews” who were literally outliers with regards to the Covenant God established with his Chosen People. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus seems to come across as cruel and dismissive with regards to Gentiles. When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleads for her child, for instance, Jesus compares her kind to dogs. Elsewhere, he directly charges the disciples to avoid the Gentile riffraff, and to reserve their pearls of preaching for Israel’s lost sheep rather than the outsider swine.

Later, however, Jesus changes his tune. The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a heads up about this shift in tone, for it’s the Samaritan – a Gentile – who ends up being the hero in the story, not the pious Jewish scholar or Pharisee. Then there’s the woman at the well, also a Gentile – and a woman at that, not to mention an unblushing adulteress. Yet, rather than snub her, as a first-century rabbi might’ve been expected to do, Jesus treats her with kindness, compassion, and graciousness – so much so that the Apostles are shocked at his unconventional liberality and comity.

And what about tax collectors? Consider Jesus’ dealings with Zaccheus, a revenue man and a crook – everybody knows it! Even so, JeBrugghen,_Hendrick_ter_-_The_Calling_of_St._Matthew_-_1621sus sees past the man’s record of petty larceny and greed, and recognizes a hungry soul – one that simply requires a bit of affirmation and divine affiliation in order to be pulled over to the side of those seeking righteousness.

Finally, there’s St. Matthew, of course, a tax collector whom Jesus appointed as an apostle – an apostle, for God’s sake! The guy’s supposed to be an outcast, and the Lord appoints him as an apostle!

Plus this tax collector/apostle goes on to write a Gospel, and it’s Matthew who records Jesus’ proscription regarding the unrepentant – that they be relegated to the same status as odious tax collectors – despite being a tax collector himself!

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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What Should’ve Been My Most Embarrassing Moment

8 Dec

When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, “To get rid of my sins” (G.K. Chesterton).

Cecilia was working on something for school. “Papa,” she asked, “what was your most embarrassing moment?”

What, I have to choose just one?

Let’s see, there’s the time I lost my passport in England while traveling with a group from my high school. I had hid it so well in my Brighton hotel room that I couldn’t locate it by the time we were leaving for London. While all my friends toured Buckingham Palace, I was navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of the U.S. Embassy in order to procure replacement credentials.

embarrassedAnd speaking of high school, how about the time my friend Johnny and I were co-emcees for a musical variety show. We had worked up some clever patter and repartee, and the first two performances went off without a hitch. For the third and final performance, we got a bit cocky and decided to change up some of the jokes — you know, for our fans who were coming to see us for a third straight night.

Yup. Great idea — except, under the lights and before that packed auditorium, I completely blanked on the new punchlines. Gone, *poof*, nada. Later, after my complete implosion and frozen silence onstage, the show’s director chided us: Don’t. Make. Last. Minute. Changes — as if he needed to tell us that.

The episode I finally settled on for Cecilia’s school assignment, however, was one she already knew well — a story that will be passed on as a part of Becker family lore for generations to come. It concerns a job interview — no, actually, it wasn’t even the interview. It was my initial encounter with the person who would conduct the interview.

I had just started nursing school, and I decided to get some experience in a healthcare environment, so I applied for a job in a nursing home. I was terribly nervous about this first foray into the healthcare arena, and when the HR director appeared to usher me into her office, I fumbled: “Hi, I’m Jennifer,” said I, hand outstretched. “You must be Rick.”

And these, of course, are just the ones I can remember — or at least they’re the ones I’m willing to relate. The funny thing is that my first confession didn’t occur to me at all. You’d think that would’ve been plenty embarrassing, seeing as how it included a couple decades’ worth of screw-ups and sin.

It was Holy Saturday. I took the ‘L’ to the Loop and walked a few blocks west on Madison to St. Peter’s. Served by Franciscans, St. Peter’s is one of Chicago’s penitential hotspots, with confessionals manned seemingly around the clock, from dawn to dusk.

For this first confession prior to my reception in the Church at the Easter Vigil, I’d made an appointment with Fr. Robert, the pastor at the time. St. Peter’s in the Loop is a mighty busy place, and no doubt Fr. Robert was an extremely busy man, but he put me at eaconfessionse and made me feel like he didn’t have anything else to do but hear the first confession of a twenty-something convert.

Was I anxious? Sure. Unsettled? Definitely. But embarrassed? Oddly, no. In fact, far from it — more like: Relieved; unburdened; free. Father heard me out, gave me some words of encouragement, and then asked me if I knew my Act of Contrition. Know it? I’d only been practicing it daily for weeks.

And then he put his hand on my head and gave me absolution. Perhaps you’ve had this feeling before, but I felt a physical weight lift from my shoulders that day — a real, physical weight. I’ll never forget it

Yesterday, my second-grader made her first confession. I watched Kath waiting in the long line for Monsignor, our (her) beloved pastor. As she stood there, no signs of shame — as she went in, no hesitancy. And when she came out a few minutes later? No blush, no embarrassment, no drooped head, eyes cast down. Her head was up and she was looking around, a smirk transfixed where you’d perhaps expect a frown.

I’ve seen that smirk before — the same smirk that all seven-year-olds seem to display after receiving the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. Do they practice that smirk in school and CCD?

Regardless, it’s a sign that something went right. No embarrassment. Instead, simple grace. And satisfaction.

What a relief.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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