Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Leviticus 6:1-7, Luke 19:1-10 ~
“If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”
These words, directed at world leaders attending last week’s United Nations Climate Summit, were part of a closing salvo from 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg:
You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.
“If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you.”
I’ve thought a lot about these words, especially in light of the upcoming Jewish holidays with their emphasis on forgiveness and atonement. And I wondered: is Greta being uncharitable, even “un-Christian,” when she claims her generation would not forgive?
I don’t think so. But, why?
Because she doesn’t make this proclamation out of context. In fact, she precedes it with a very important phrase: “If you choose to fail us…” In other words, if you choose not to repent, in Hebrew, teshuvah, or “turn around.” If you choose to continue the status quo rather than returning and restarting a different and far more life-affirming, justice-promoting, and compassionate path, you will not be forgiven.
But… where’s the grace? I mean, Christian tradition teaches that all our sins, even the chosen or intentional ones, are forgiven, that we’re completely loved, fully redeemed, regardless of merit, regardless of “choice.” And, I believe God does love us, regardless. But this grace doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s meant, always, to inspire our best or highest selves. Remember, Jesus was Jewish, and in Judaism forgiveness is always paired with repentance. In this paradigm, God both loves us and yearns for us to turn around and come back, to stop sinning, “missing the mark,” and get back on the right track.
Let’s listen to the Zacchaeus story again, this time in Eugene Peterson words:
When Jesus entered and walked through Jericho there was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over them. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.
When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with a crook?”
Zacchaeus stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I do anything wrong, I pay four times the damages.”
This story is often interpreted as a parable of grace, i.e. Zacchaeus had such a great desire to see Jesus that he, a short, stout middle-aged man, climbed a tree! Which, despite his being a tax collector and sinner, brought him the gift of Jesus’ attention and attendance at dinner. And this interpretation seems valid. I mean, there are many stories in the gospels about unexpected (meaning, culturally disapproved) individuals crying out for Jesus and being told, “your faith has made you well.” Yet, that’s not where this story ends.
After the crowd grumbles its disapproval, Zacchaeus responds that he gives away half his income to the poor and, if he does something wrong, repays or repairs it four-fold. And then Jesus says, “today, salvation has come to this house.” So, what’s the message? Well, again, in Judaism, forgiveness is always paired with repentance, or turning back from the path of wrongdoing to that of right living. Thus, while Jesus preached radical forgiveness (we’re asked to forgive “seventy times seven”) he also preached radical repentance, as in “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Meaning, turn around and come back, because God’s Way of Peace, Justice, and Compassion is right here, right now, for anyone who chooses it.
For me, the story of Zacchaeus is a parable of grace and atonement. It’s Jesus’ way of saying: Yes, you are loved completely, no matter who you are, what you do, and where you are on life’s journey. And, you’re called to repent. To turn around and make things right. I see you up in that tree!
Jesus makes a similar point in Matthew 5, right after the Beatitudes: When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
For God isn’t interested in our offerings if we aren’t attempting to live in right relationship with our neighbors (and ourselves). And that’s what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are all about: repentance, reconciliation, and atonement. It’s not that God can’t or won’t forgive without these, it’s that we humans often need a push to do the right thing. And grace, amazing as it is, becomes cheap when we aren’t called to be our best selves.
As 20th century theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, without the cross…
“Cheap grace.” I’m so glad Bonhoeffer addressed this. Because grace is such a delicious concept. I mean, the notion that God loves me “no matter what” is such a relief. No matter who I am, what I do, or where I am on life’s journey, God loves me. This is awesome. And, true!
But… it doesn’t mean God has no expectations. I mean, it’s one thing to say we’re not perfect (we’re not!) and quite another to say we shouldn’t return to the path of honorable living each time we go astray (we should). In fact, Jesus tells us; not only should we return to the path of honorable living, we should make amends to and reconcile with those we’ve harmed along the way.
But how? Well, there are any number of suggestions, but they all start with recognizing we’ve done something wrong and being willing to acknowledge and make it right. Thus, an “I’m sorry” without intention to make reparations or change our behavior is worthless. If you’re going to apologize, do so with a plan of action. Determine how you’re going to make things right. Decide how you’re going to change your behavior from now on.
As you may know, Twelve Step Programs include “making amends” as a key component of each person’s recovery. What you may not realize is that each one of us is, or should be, in some process of recovery! In any case, we each need to make amends, and two of the twelve steps are devoted to this process. Step Eight asks that we:
Make a list of all persons harmed and be willing to make amends to them. And Step Nine requests that we: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Why the exception? Because these steps aren’t just about us. They’re about ourselves and our neighbors. The point isn’t just to feel better, it’s to make reparations, to repair the damage we have done. Thus, an apology that creates more damage or injury to a person we’ve already harmed is not reparation. That apology should be saved for a conversation between our self and God or our self and a spiritual director or sponsor.
Which reminds me of another aspect of Greta’s speech that got me thinking. American Christians tend to view repentance and forgiveness through a peculiarly personal lens. Meaning, we individualize the process as an interaction between ourselves and God. And yet, this isn’t how God’s Body works! As the Body of God, we live in community, so salvation is not just an individual enterprise. We live and we die, together. Our actions impact one another, human and non-human beings. As Pastor William Lamar at Metropolitan AME Church in DC has said: We cannot use the Evangelical version of privatized forgiveness. Quoting Bonhoeffer, he notes: Cheap grace is absent the challenge of living in new ways as communities.
Whether or not she’s read Bonhoeffer, Greta clearly gets this. Because forgiveness without atonement is indeed cheap grace. And like any other cheap good, is bad for our health, for the communal environment, and, as the old poster read “for children and other living things.”
So, I ask you, please, to consider: If we each took, as the Twelve Steps say, “a fearless moral inventory” of our lives, what amends would we need to make? Where would we have to turn around and get back on the right track? Note: multiple U-turns may be required! To whom do we owe apologies and how should we reconcile? Acknowledging this could include both specific individuals and the much wider community of human and non-human beings…
Friends, I ask you, because Greta was not just talking to the world leaders at the UN, she was talking to us. We have such important choices to make: If we choose to change, we align ourselves with the delicious gift of grace God chooses to give us. And our progeny will be called by tradition and decency to forgive our prior harm. If we choose not to change, our children and their descendants will not be called to forgive.
And, truthfully, we won’t deserve to be forgiven.