Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part One)

You can’t get a new past.

No matter what the science fiction writers propose, past events are fixed, immovable, unchangeable. The past cannot be changed. Only the future is fluid, contingent, still to be determined. This is one of the ways in which we might meditate on this text together. “In short, life is about regrets,” the authors of the Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness write in their preface, “doing what we should not do and not doing what we should. Only the conscienceless,” they conclude, “are immune” (page vii).

I have done a fair bit of work on the subject of forgiveness over the years. I find that the topic of “self-forgiveness” is often the one that occupies much of the conversation for people. I wonder if that was a struggle for Peter as well. The Johannine gospel reports, as do the other gospel accounts, that Peter “denied” his association with Jesus in some way. In the Synoptics, he denies that he knows Jesus. In the Johannine account, Peter denies three times that he is one of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps a greater failing in the framework of the Johannine gospel).

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While Simon Peter is really a bit player in the majority of the Johannine account, here in chapter twenty-one, he takes center stage. He is mentioned by name and by pronoun nearly two dozen times in twenty-five verses. Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter’s love for him makes it clear that this chapter is the epilogue for the denial narrative and for the gospel account as a whole. Peter cannot deny his denial but rather must deal with it if he is to function as one of the risen Lord’s disciples. So, there is a reckoning in this chapter.

You can’t get a new past. So, what is Peter to do? “In contrast to strategies to cope with wrongdoing by either accepting responsibility or prioritizing oneself over others,” the editors of the Handbook write in their preface, “forgiving oneself entails accepting responsibility for violation of a socio-moral value while also accepting oneself as a person of value” (page viii). It doesn’t appear, from the text, that this sort of self-forgiveness will suffice for Simon Peter.

Thus, he goes back to what he knows. He returns to who he was before this three-year journey with Jesus began. “I’m going fishing,” he tells six of the other disciples. These six include the main disciple characters in the Johannine account, although their identities are rolled out a bit slowly. They decide to go along and get back to the work that they know as well. But there’s no real future in that work. They catch nothing.

The first scene in this text is one of quiet despair in the dark. You can’t get a new past. Peter doesn’t know how to move into the future, carrying the burden of that past with him. There they sit in the boat, at night, doing that which takes as little thinking as possible. It is a poignant picture of anyone who is caught in the dead-end of guilt and shame for a past sin.

Then, the sun comes up. This is the Johannine account, so every small detail matters. Dawn is resurrection time, as we know from the gospel report. New light brings the possibility of new life. Perhaps there is some path forward into a life that is more than an endless cycle of rumination, regret, remorse, and self-recrimination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, there is no future without forgiveness. But perhaps with forgiveness there is also a future.

Tutu wrote his book to report and reflect on the work and experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. Tutu was the chair and guiding light of that commission. One option in the aftermath of that diabolical system was to simply condemn the perpetrators en masse and abandon them to perdition. Tutu and others discerned that such a path would leave South African society hobbled by the past and destined to a hate-filled future.

Thus, he was certain that there could be no future for that society without a process for confronting the evil, hearing the testimonies of both perpetrators and victims, fostering accountability and forgiveness (if appropriate and helpful), and finding paths toward rehabilitation and hope.

“The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons,” Tutu wrote, “then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly,” Tutu continued, “it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better” (page 83).

I cannot get a new past. But I am not imprisoned by that past to pursue an unchanging destiny either. I can be changed. I can grow. I can hear the call to follow Jesus and respond with a life of discipleship. The future is history still to be written. And that future history, as we read in our text, is to be written in the language of love.

“God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become,” Tutu writes, “and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover. Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity,” he continues, “have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law” (page 85). Thus, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

What follows this question is not an accusation. We might have asked a similar question and followed up with something like, “Then how could you have denied in public three times that you were not one of my disciples? What kind of love does that!” I might have pushed for an explanation of the misdeed, a way to make sense of why a supposed loved one did such a thing to me. I have asked such questions, and I have been asked such questions. If I loved you, how in the world could I have done that thing that hurt you so much?

On the one hand, Jesus already knew the answer to the question about the past. Peter denied his discipleship because acknowledging it would have cost him his life. It wasn’t a hard thing to figure out. On the other hand, what explanation would have really helped? If I could give an adequate explanation for why I hurt and betrayed someone I loved, then that explanation would become a justification for the action. And, Voila! I would no longer be guilty and in need of forgiveness.

To forgive is first of all to accuse, as the French proverb reminds us. And to repent is first of all to confess. Confession is not explanation. Confession is not self-justification. Confession is not spreading the blame or defending the action. Confession is acknowledging that I did something wrong (or failed to do something right). The result was that someone else got hurt. No, I hurt someone. End of discussion.

“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are,” Tutu writes. “It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation,” he continues, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is worthwhile,” Tutu argues, “because in the end dealing with the real situation brings about real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing” (pages 270-271).

The breakfast on the beach is certainly a meal of reconciliation. It has echoes of the feeding of the Five Thousand and thus is the Johannine author’s way of connecting us to the Eucharistic meal. Yet, that meal of reconciliation is not the end of the scene. Therefore, when they were done eating, the Johannine account says, the conversation began. “Simon of John, do you love me more that these?”

If you do, Jesus says, then put that love into action now and in the future. Love the ones I love in the way that I love them. Peter, you can’t get a new past. But you can live into a new future – one that is not bound to the brokenness of that past. For Christians, all hope is resurrection hope. And for Christians, the outcome of forgiveness is always new life, both now and forever.

We all know that we can’t get a new past. We can suppress and deny that past. Or we can confront that past, take responsibility for it, make repairs in whatever manner possible, and live in ways that prevent us from repeating that past. These changes may be painful. They may even cost some of us our lives (as was the case for Peter). But without forgiveness, our futures will be just more of the same.

I think it’s impossible, or at least irresponsible, to read this text without thinking about what it means for systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our American history and in our current lives. We will think together about those implications as we move forward this week.

References and Resources

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Three)

Did the younger son “repent”? The answer to that question requires a more complex response than might first be imagined. Translation matters a great deal in the interpretation of this parable. Verse 17 is deliciously ambiguous in the Greek. “But as he was coming (in)to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s paid laborers have more than enough bread, but here I am, being destroyed by hunger!” (my translation). The verse offers divergent possibilities for interpretation.

I subscribe to Richard Swanson’s weekly e-comments/blog at “provokingthegospel.” In this week’s post, Swanson makes some helpful and interesting points. First, we hear that the younger son was “coming (in)to himself.” Swanson suggests that this “could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But,” Swanson continues, “it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.”

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One response is at least the beginnings of repentance. The other is the self-serving counsel of prudence. The one thing that I wish translators wouldn’t do is make the decision for the non-Greek reading student. The Today’s English Version translation, for example, has something like “when he came to his senses.” That’s not “wrong” as a translation. But I think it over-reads the text and over-determines the outcome.

Sometimes overdoing the translation is a no-harm/no-foul action by translators. But here, I would argue that’s not the case. If one of the intentions of the Lukan author is to challenge us to wrestle with the ambiguity before coming to our own conclusions, then overdoing the translation actually violates the intention of the text. So, let’s wrestle with the text rather than resolve it prematurely. What does it mean for the younger son (and/or for us) that he “came (in)to himself”?

Swanson argues that “the translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state.” He is talking about the translation we get in the NRSV that describes the paid laborers as having “bread enough and to spare…” He suggests that this is a fair enough translation, but it doesn’t convey the real tone of the younger son’s complaint. It’s not that the hired help has “enough” bread, according to Swanson. The younger son is irritated as he remembers (accurately or not) that the hired hands have “more than enough” (that is, too much) bread.

The contrast is with those who have too much and don’t “deserve” it, and he who has too little even though he “deserves” to have it all. “The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job),” Swanson writes, “suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?” No, Dr. Swanson, it doesn’t.

We should stick with this interior monologue for a bit in order to hear the real tone of the son’s conversation with himself. The use of interior monologues with the self is a consistent feature in the Lukan account and especially in several of the parables. Interior monologues are quoted seven times in the Lukan account, and six of those times are in the parables. Dinkler suggests that these monologues are consistent with the foreshadowing found in the Song of Simeon, where the elderly prophet declares that the judgments of the hearts of many will be revealed (see Luke 2:35).

Dinkler notes that in ancient Jewish literature, such as in Psalm 14:1, “what one says in/to one’s soul conditions and reflects one’s relationship with God, especially indicating wisdom or foolishness” (page 382). Most often, this self-talk emphasizes “the folly of wicked self-address” (page 383). A survey of Jewish literature within and beyond the biblical canons demonstrates “how, for many ancient Jews, an individual’s thoughts were a reliable indicator of her or his posture toward God. Usually,” Dinkler notes, “in the contexts of these writings, the thinker is not wise but foolish” (page 384).

Dinkler describes the various parabolic inner monologues in some detail. They include the foolish farmer and the unfaithful servant in Luke 12, the prodigal son in Luke 15, the crafty steward in Luke 16, the unjust judge in Luke 18, and the owner of the vineyard in Luke 20. Leaving the parable of the prodigal aside for the moment, four out of the five monologues offer negative portrayals of the characters.

The owner of the vineyard asks a question of himself, which might be neutral (but also might not). In the overall narrative of that parable however, the landowner acts recklessly and foolishly. The landowner’s folly leads to the quite predictable death of the son. Many commentators read the parable and see the landowner as yet another foolish character who talks to himself.

What about the inner monologue of the younger son? Dinkler argues that this is not such a clearcut case of a negative rhetorical evaluation of the character. He notes that the son begins as a negative figure, based on the description of his lifestyle. Traditionally, interpreters have seen a change in that description precisely at the moment when the younger son “comes in(to) himself” and begins to talk with himself. But that interpretation may miss a great deal.

“Despite the son’s apparently humble interior monologue, however,” Dinkler offers, “several clues suggest that he may not be truly repentant” (page 387). There is no mention of repentance here, as there is in the previous two parables. In addition, the son’s plans and preparations are not what produce the gracious reception on the part of the father. “Although the son’s self-talk is not overtly negative, as in the prior interior monologues,” Dinkler concludes, “narrative details converge to indicate that he misreads the situation and misunderstands his father; his thinking is incongruent with his father’s will” (pages 387-388).

In all six parables, therefore, the characters who conduct inner monologues demonstrate foolish and even arrogant thinking. They are self-serving and destructive in their relationships with others. None, Dinkler notes, would quality as a Hellenistic hero. None is wise or honorable in Jewish terms. Dinkler goes on to wonder, then, how these characters’ interior lives might impact rhetorically the Lukan readers/listeners and makes several suggestions.

Interior monologue brings us into direct and intimate contact with the characters. This contact can lead us to empathize and identify with the character. “The soliloquies invite readerly identifcation, and this invitation has an evaluative dimension to it,” Dinkler writes. “The narrator constructs the story so as to elicit particular readerly judgments with respect to the characters; these judgments, in turn, prompt readers to consider whether their own views align with the narrator’s perspective,” he continues, “thereby encouraging the μετάνοια— “change in thinking”—that is so prominent in Luke’s Gospel” (page 394).

In other words, Dinkler says, these interior monologues can lead us to consider what we would say to ourselves in similar situations. He suggests that the farmer’s “What should I do?” in Luke 12:17 turns into “What should I do?” for the reader. It’s no surprise that the same question appears in Luke 20:13 in the Parable of the Vineyard. “In a case of ironic reversal,” Dinkler suggests, “a reader who sympathizes with a thinking character’s incorrect perspective will also experience the narratorial judgment that follows” (page 394). We may find ourselves drawn into the reckless foolishness of the characters and be jolted awake by the experience.

“Luke’s moments of interiority are a kind of fusion between Hellenistic literature’s structural uses of inner speech,” Dinkler notes, “and Hebrew tropes about the danger of foolish self-talk” (page 398). We find that Luke’s characters who talk to themselves are not wise or heroic. They’re quite human, and we can easily identify with their moments of self-centered folly. In contrast to contemporary urgings to follow one’s “gut,” for example, the biblical perspective reflected in Luke suggests that our inner monologues are as likely to lead us astray as they are to give us helpful guidance.

All this being said, did the younger son “repent”? “Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status,” Richard Swanson writes in his blog post. “When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart,” Swanson concludes, “and this revelation is disturbing. If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future?” Swanson asks.  The storyteller,” he reminds us, “leaves this crucial question without an answer.”

Or perhaps the narrative gives us a sort of an answer. The younger son crafts and practices his speech all the way home. He is surprised by his father’s rush to embrace him, but he launches bravely into his script. The father interrupts the speech halfway through. This is so surprising that some manuscript copyists filled in the missing last part of the speech on their own! But that obscures the point. The son’s speech cannot and does not manipulate the father into forgiving. That has already happened before the son even opened his mouth.

We don’t know how the younger son responds to this gift of grace. The interrupted speech is the last word we get from the younger son. The speaking and acting from that point on belong largely to the forgiving father. While we can wonder how it turned out for each of the sons in the parable, we can have no doubt how things turned out for the father.

That seems significant, eh?

Resources and References

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

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Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Three)

Some interpreters and editions separate Luke 13:1-5 (“Repent or Perish” in the Nestle-Aland volume) from Luke 13:6-9 (“The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree”). I think that’s not a helpful separation, no matter how tempting it might be. The parable in verses 6-9 is intended to interpret and expand the teaching on repentance that comprises verses 1-5. “In its narrative context,” Levine and Witherington write, “the Parable of the Fig Tree…is a commentary on the two disasters in Judea; for Luke, the tree is an allegorical representation of the person who needs to repent” (page 365).

The Galileans who bled to death in front of a Temple altar in Jerusalem had no time to make amends for sins still “on the books” of their lives. They were here one moment and gone the next. The (Judean?) construction workers who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam had no time to satisfy their moral and spiritual debts. In a moment, their lives were over. The clock had run out. For them there were no more tomorrows.

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In light of that sudden and unexpected end, Jesus tells a story about a near miss and a second chance. The parable creates all sorts of interpretive speculation about tree planting and manure spreading. It has been used as an allegory since some of the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Those allegories – many of which have imagined the fig tree as “unfruitful” Israel – are not particularly helpful to us and have been one more element in the anti-Judaism impact of the New Testament.

Let’s avoid that mistake, shall we?

The general tenor of the narrative in this stretch of the Lukan account is the theme of unexpected results. Let’s work our way backwards in the chapter. In the parable of the Narrow Door (Luke 13:23-30), the guest list is quite the opposite of what Jesus’ listeners might have expected. Nonetheless, the eschatological feast is standing room only, with guests from every point of the compass coming and eating in the Kin(g)dom of God.

In the mini-parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Luke 13:18-22), the image is of something very small that produces large results. The Kin(g)dom of God is comparable to these surprising results. In the Healing of the Bent-over Woman (Luke 1:10-17), the woman had been imprisoned by her ailment for eighteen years. What hope could there be for her healing? Yet, Jesus spoke and laid hands on her. She stood up straight and began praising God.

It’s amazing what Jesus can do with second chances, eh?

Perhaps this is one of the ways to approach the text. Every day we live is a “second chance.” When we focus on the potential culpability of those who died in Jerusalem, Justo Gonzalez suggests, we are asking the question backwards. “The surprising thing is not that so many die,” he writes, “but that we still live. If it were a matter of sin,” Gonzalez continues, “we would all be dead” (Kindle Location 3238).

What, Gonzalez asks, does the parable mean? It means that those of who still survive “are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit” (Kindle Location 3245). But it means more than that. And here is where Gonzalez’ commentary gets really interesting.

“It also means that even our apparent blessing and abundance are not necessarily something of which we should boast,” he continues. “The tree that has produced no fruit receives special attention and added fertilizer, not because it is so good, but rather because it is so poor” (Kindle Location 3246, my emphasis). This tree has not been blessed with abundance. It has nothing to commend it to the landowner. So far, the tree has been a disappointment and is just taking up space.

Gonzalez suggests that to the casual observer, all the extra attention the tree will receive would be a sign that the tree is specially blessed. “This is what one would expect on the premises of the so-called gospel of prosperity,” he writes, “good things are a reward for faith and fruitfulness. But the truth is exactly the opposite,” Gonzalez continues. “The fig tree is receiving special care because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear” (Kindle Location 3253).

This interpretation takes, for example, the self-serving bias of White supremacy and turns it on its head. “Could it be,” Gonzalez asks, “that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that otherwise we would have great difficulty bearing fruit?” (Kindle Location 3261). Perhaps all our supposed “blessings” are “just so much manure, piled on us because otherwise we would be such lousy fruit trees?” (Kindle Location 3262). I get the sense that Gonzalez offers this interpretation knowing that white people won’t quite get it, at least not right away.

Most important, Gonzalez suggests – might our power, privilege, position, and property be a warning about impending doom lest we bear fruit? And could it be that bearing fruit means sharing our abundance with those who have less rather than accumulating our stuff as a means of self-satisfied self-congratulation (see Luke 16:19-31, again). Might our survival for one more day be the result, not of our great planning and foresight (and hoarding of the good stuff), but rather because the Tree Planter has decided to give us another chance?

The Second Letter of Peter carries forth this thought in verses eight and nine of chapter three (NRSV). “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

You may know, as a reader of my posts, that I am a Christian universalist and hold no brief for eternal conscious punishment. I don’t think the threat here is hell as punishment. It is, rather, the potential hell of complete self-awareness on the part of us who have not born fruit.

What will it be like to come to the end of my earthly life knowing that I used my “fruit” only for me and that now I am privileged to spend eternity with those who were deprived in this life because I wanted to have too much? Will that realization not be as much hell and conscious torment as anyone might need standing in the presence of the God of second chances?

It will be enough for me, I think. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what it means to ruminate over sixty-five years of regret and remorse. The prospect of facing up to all my failings in an instant, all the missed opportunities, all the losses of nerve, all the blissful and willful ignorance of the needs of others – that’s almost more than I can bear to consider at the moment.

This is one of the opportunities of our Lenten journey – to remember that we still have time to live fruitfully. Another way to think about this is that repentance requires repair before reconciliation. Richard Swanson points out that “Jewish faith recognizes that there is a solid, concrete reality to repentance and faith” (page 124). Feeling sorry may begin a process of repentance, but it is only a beginning. Repair is a necessary element.

This Sunday and next, I’m doing two sessions of an adult forum on forgiving and being forgiven. It’s a classic example of the old saying that those who can’t do end up teaching. I’m hardly an exemplar of either being forgiven or forgiving. Thus, everything I say about repentance is directed first and foremost to me.

And I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere close to getting it right in this life. Frankly, it worries me (a bit). That being said, we’ll start our reflections on Sunday with the discipline of being forgiven. We’ll get to forgiving the next Sunday. But I want to start with the hard part first.

The French have a proverb which notes that “to forgive is first of all to accuse.” If someone forgives me for something, that person is convinced that I have done harm to that person. Otherwise, what is there to forgive? The corollary to that proverb, I think, is that “to repent is first of all to confess.” If I need to repent of a sin, then I have to acknowledge that I did something wrong. Otherwise, what is there to repent?

When I see myself as that fig tree, the first thing I must do is to acknowledge that I have born little fruit. If I had been fruitful, I wouldn’t need the extra time (or the manure treatment).

A brief note about that manure treatment. “Give me some time to dig around the roots and throw shit,” the gardener proposes in Luke 13:8. The final Greek word in the sentence is “kopria.” It really does mean “poop.” For example, coprolites are fossilized feces, dinosaur turds turned to stone by the passage of time. I mention this because most of my opportunities for growth are likely to be uncomfortable and/or unpleasant. Discomfort is likely a sign that I’m getting the treatment I need, no matter how much I might dislike it at the time.

How is the Lord digging around my roots and throwing shit at me to help me grow into the human I was created to be?

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Excerpt from “Forgiveness: The Road Home”

It Depends on What ‘As’ Means

It is the text that haunts us in all these conversations—“And forgive us our debts,” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  Jesus then makes it clear that this practice is fundamental to all he is saying in this prayer.  He concludes with these words: “14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).  What does “as” mean for we who follow Jesus into this life of forgiving and being forgiven?  “As” could mean “after” or “as a result of.”  Or it could mean “in like manner.”  That is the meaning we find in the New Testament.

Our call is to forgive in a manner that resembles God’s forgiving.  Why that is we will discuss presently.  First, however, let’s examine what that means.  We can read these words at the end of the first chapter of John’s first letter:

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8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Let’s examine this text in some detail.  “If we confess…[God]…will forgive,” the writer declares.  What about that “if”?  Is there any doubt that God will forgive if we confess?  Is this some sort of conditional relationship, a contract?  No, neither theology nor grammar will permit that understanding.  The “if” in this passage does not indicate doubt or uncertainty.  It does not refer to a condition that may not be fulfilled.  Rather, the grammar here indicates that God’s forgiveness is the purpose, result and/or description of the outcome when we confess.  “If” in this passage would be better translated as “When” in order to remove any of the doubt that comes with our English translation.  In fact, it is our trust that God forgives that opens the door to our confession, repentance and new life.

“Faithful [God] is, and just,” the Greek reads in this passage, “in order that (my italics) [God] might forgive us the sins and cleanse us…”  Therefore we need to see and understand God’s forgiving as the demonstration and outcome of God’s faithful promise to save and renew.  So God’s forgiving is not some grudging concession once we have fulfilled certain conditions.  Rather God’s forgiving is at the heart of who God is and what God does.  Therefore the result is sure, and we can have confidence that our confession, repentance and new life will not be rejected by God.  Thus confession and repentance cannot be the cause of God’s forgiving.  Rather our confession and repentance are offered on the basis of our trust in God’s forgiving even prior to our confession.  “Amazingly,” Volf writes in Free of Charge, “God does wait until we have confessed to offer and even enact forgiveness; God forgives before we confess.  We know from the start that whatever it might be that we confess it will not count against us.  We are loved notwithstanding our offense.  We are forgiven so we can be freed from the burden of our offense and return into the arms of the loving God” (page 154).

Verse ten makes the point clear.  “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”  This should be a puzzling statement on first reading.  If we say that we have not sinned even when we know we have, that makes us the liars, does it not?  How can our denial of our own sin make God the liar?  This can only be the case if we assume that God has already forgiven us.  Remember, to forgive is first of all to condemn.  To forgive is to name an offense in order to let go of being offended.  If God forgives us even though we are not sinners, then God is the one who is lying.  If God says by forgiving us that we are sinners, then either we are sinners or God has uttered a falsehood.  So verse ten can only make sense if we assume that God has declared sinners to be forgiven and now awaits the acknowledgement of that sin through confession.

So what does “as” mean?  It means that forgiving comes first if it is to happen at all.  God’s forgiving will not be conditioned or controlled or defined by our repentance or the lack thereof.  Rather, God forgives out of gracious love and then longs for our response.  Otherwise the Sovereign God becomes subject to our foolish whims and stubborn pride.  “Having defeated evil on the cross,” notes N. T. Wright in Evil and the Justice of God, “God has put evil in a position where it cannot forever blackmail [God]” (page 140).  When we can forgive first, we also are in a position where the offender can no longer control us through our own anger, pain and fear.  Jesus longs for us to know this freedom as often as possible.  In Mark 11:25-26, he urges his listeners this way, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.

This is then the standard for our life together in the Church as followers of Jesus Christ.  Forgiving comes first.  In Ephesians 4:31-32, for example, we read these instructions.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  This passage begins with the plea to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).  Forgiving first is a substantial part of how we respond to our daily call to follow Jesus in the path of cross and resurrection.  We read the same encouragement in Colossians 3:13—“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  This passage begins with the pregnant phrase, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…”  Forgiving one another in the same manner that God forgives us in Christ is a non-negotiable feature of our life together as the Church.

Those who have thought long and hard about forgiving can tell us why this matters.  Jesus “is telling us, in effect, that the faculty we have for receiving forgiveness and the faculty we have for granting forgiveness are one and the same thing.  If we open the one we shall open the other.  If we slam the door on the one, we slam the door on the other” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page158).  And again, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.  Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in—even our enemies.  This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist.  In receiving Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, we, in a sense, receive all those whom Christ received by suffering.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, page 129).

To forgive as we have been forgiven is one of the chief signs that the Resurrected Life lives in us and re-shapes our stories now and for eternity.  “Jesus’ followers were constituted by the fact that he was bringing about the return from exile, the forgiveness of sins.  Not to forgive one another would be a way of denying that this great, long-awaited event was taking place; in other words, it would be to cut off the branch on which they were sitting” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, page 70).

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Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Pt. 2); 2 Easter B

1b. the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23.

On the second Sunday of Easter, Thomas draws the majority of homiletical energy and attention. That is unfortunate, since the preceding verses are really a climactic focus of John’s gospel. Therefore, we will spend a second post on these critical and tightly packed verses.

In her 2005 article, “Touching the Risen Jesus,” Sandra Schneiders suggests that these verses are the center of John’s resurrection/ascension story. She proposes that “the [post-resurrection] appearances in John are not primarily about Jesus’ postdeath experience but about his disciples’ experience of his return to them” (2005, page 18). In other words, the gospel writer wants us to focus on the responses of Mary Magdalene, the eleven disciples, and Thomas, in order to interpret our own responses to the glorified and risen Jesus among us.

Schneiders observes that in John, when we deal with Jesus pre-Easter, we deal with him in his mortal flesh. Post-Easter, we deal with Jesus in his “immortal” body. Our dealings with Jesus are not to be compared as better or worse. Instead, the problem is responding to the post-Easter Jesus with a pre-Easter worldview and expectations. We will see this problem worked out in four different ways in John 20 – Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the Eleven, and Thomas. In each case, it is important to bear in mind the pre-Easter/post-Easter distinction (and to remember that, of course, we come to Jesus always post-Easter).

Photo by Cleverson Amaro on Pexels.com

Resurrection is the culminating “sign” in John’s gospel. In this gospel, signs always provoke a dual response. Some “believe”, and some don’t. Some don’t believe at first and only come to belief later, after further experience. The gospel is written to provoke the same crisis, the same point of discernment and decision for us as readers that it provoked for the first witnesses to the resurrection. For example, Mary Magdalene begins by seeing the empty tomb as nothing more than evidence of grave robbery. This could be where the conversation ends.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple actually enter the tomb for a look. The orderly arrangement of the burial cloths seems to rule out grave robbery. Peter does not respond well. The Beloved Disciple, according to Schneiders, “believed what Jesus had repeatedly said of his death…namely, that by it he would be glorified” (2005, page 24). The Beloved Disciples, on his first viewing, believes that Jesus has been glorified but does not understand that he has been raised from the dead. What the Beloved Disciple does not yet understand is that Jesus is both crucified and risen, both glorified and resurrected.

Schneiders notes that the Eleven will face the resurrected Lord Jesus in their midst. “Behind the Greek esthe eis to meson (literally, Jesus “stood into the midst” of the community) stands the Aramaic verb for ‘rise up’,” Schneiders writes, “which can refer either to standing up physically or rising from the dead” (2005, page 25). They now face both the empty tomb and the risen Jesus in their midst.

Jesus sends the disciples into their mission and equips them with the Holy Spirit for the task. He does this by breathing it “into” them. The Greek verb is specific in the directionality of the breathing. John’s gospel uses the same verb that the Septuagint uses to translate Genesis 2:7. In that verse, God breathes into the first human being the “breath of life.” Once again, we are invited to connect the original Creation and the New Creation.

One element of the baptismal rite in the Eastern Church instructs the priest to breathe into the face of the baptized. This is a conscious imitation of the encounter here in John 20. It’s an element that I wish now we included in our own practice. While we use the laying on of hands to remember our own endowment with the Spirit, this “breathing into” is such a profound physical reminder that baptism is the gift of New Life in Christ.

It is the Spirit that makes possible the faith which sees the crucified and resurrected Christ in and through the community. “What the Spirit does,” writes Craig Koester, “is disclose the presence of the risen and unseen Christ to believers” (page 73).

Schneiders refers to the passage as John’s version of the Great Commission. In this sending, Schneiders writes, “as the Father had poured forth the fullness of the Spirit on Jesus to identify and empower him as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, so Jesus now breathes into his disciples that same Holy Spirit to re-create them as the new Israel, the community of reconciliation, which replaces scapegoating violence with forgiveness” (2011, pages 24-25).

We should be clear to whom Jesus addresses these words. He appears to and speaks to “the disciples.” This is not limited to The Twelve or to any smaller fraction of that group. The writer of John’s gospel is able to identify The Twelve when that is an important item. But we should not assume that “the disciples” is limited to that group.

“’Disciple’ in John is an inclusive term,” Sandra Schneiders writes. “The community of the Fourth Gospel clearly includes Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles, women and men, known members of the Twelve and many who are not in that group, married and single people, itinerants and householders. In other words,” she concludes, “the great commission of the risen Jesus, in John, is given to the whole church, who will be, henceforth, Jesus’ real presence in the world” (2011, page 26).

The central part of Jesus’ commission to this inclusive community has to do with the healing and wholeness of forgiveness. Sandra Schneiders proposes that John 20:19-23 forms an inclusio with John 1:29, where John the Witness points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus has expelled the “Ruler of this world” and the power of sin to conquer. The disciples are called in this passage to carry out that mission of reconciliation, empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit of Jesus (see Schneiders, 2011).

John 20:23 requires special attention here. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” The first “forgive” is a completed past action that is translated as an “historical present.” The sense is, “Whenever you forgive the sins of anyone…” The second “forgive” is a continuing action in the present. Therefore, the action of forgiving has continuing impact in the lives of believers and the life of the community. So far, so good.

The second clause is more challenging. It is translated in most places as “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The problem is that the word for “sins” does not appear in the Greek text of that clause and must therefore be supplied by the translator. Translations reflect, perhaps, a mirroring of similar passages in Matthew’s gospel. Those passages, however, are applied directly to situations of church discipline – an ongoing theme in Matthew’s gospel.

John’s gospel has different concerns. A particular concern is that the community would be “one” and that no one would be “lost.” Sandra Schneiders proposes in a couple of places that the verse should be translated without “sins” in the second clauses since it’s not there in the text. “Assured of [Jesus’] identity and presence and enlivened by his Spirit,” she writes, “the community will forgive sins and hold fast in communion all those whom God will entrust to it…” (2005, page 30, my emphasis).

In other words, verse 23 is not about retaining “sins.” It is about retaining souls, about holding fast to the community in the face of challenge and persecution. “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable,” Schneiders argues, “that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus” (2011, page 28).

This fits much better with John’s overall theology. God did not send the Son into the cosmos to condemn the cosmos, we remember from chapter 3, but rather that the cosmos might be saved through him. The community is called, therefore, to function, Schneiders concludes, “as Jesus took away the sin of the world…and held fast all those the Father had given him” (2005, page 30).  She expands this conclusion at the end of her 2011 address.

“Just as Jesus received his disciples from the Father and holds them fast in communion with himself despite their weakness and infidelity, so his church will draw into one through baptism those whom Jesus commits to it, and will maintain them in communion through ongoing mutual forgiveness of sins. In that community, feeding on the Lamb who has taken away the sin of the world and freed from all need for sacred violence, whether physical or spiritual, they will live and offer to the world the peace that the world cannot give” (2011, page 29).

Should the preacher spend time unpacking the nuances of Greek grammar to make the case for the alternative translation? No, clearly not. On the other hand, this text has been and can be used as a club of church discipline to exclude rather than embrace “sinners.” It is noted in many church constitutions under the congregational discipline heading, so this is no mere academic interest. I think the preacher should consider at least noting that Jesus’ commission to the church is to retain people rather than sins.

This means that “forgiving” is a way that Resurrection works out in the life of the disciple community. Forgiveness is the embodiment of Easter new life in our relationships with one another. God wants to extend that gift of life to all and to continue to extend that gift of life forever.

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Throwback Thursday Books: Forgiveness, Pardon and Reconciliation Distinguished

Current events reveal once again our cultural and theological confusions regarding confession and repentance, forgiveness and pardon, reconciliation and gaslighting. The current rush to reconciliation on the part of some in the wake of the attempted lynching in our nation’s capitol on January 6th is a symptom of this confusion. So, on this Throwback Thursday, I want to share an excerpt from my own book, Forgiveness: The Road Home. You can find that title on my “Books for Sale” page on this site. Or you can go here.

On October 2nd, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse with a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun.  He removed all the boys from the building.  After a few students and a teacher escaped to get help, Roberts nailed the doors of the building shut.  During the standoff with police, Roberts shot and killed five of the girls, the oldest of which was thirteen.  He wounded five more before turning the gun on himself. 

While the tragedy was shocking in and of itself, reporters were soon focusing on how the Amish community of Nickel Mines was forgiving the gunman and caring for his family.  The outside world could not comprehend how forgiveness was possible in such a situation.

The authors of Amish Grace explore a number of factors that made such forgiveness possible.  First, they point to “the habit of forgiveness” that forms so much of Amish life and faith.  The capacity to forgive did not spring out of the moment.  It was not manufactured for its public relations value.  The forgiveness the Amish expressed as a natural outgrowth of their life together, their faith in Christ, and their understanding of the Gospel. 

In a very real sense, they had prepared for this moment for the five hundred years of their existence as the Amish faith community.  Miroslav Volf describes the power of a forgiving community this way, referring not to the Amish community but to his own parents: “They forgave because they were part of a community that followed Christ and for whom Scripture wasn’t an old religious book, but the life-shaping word of the living God…Do you want to become a forgiving person?  Seek the company of forgiven forgivers!” (Free of Charge, pages 213-214).

Because the Amish make forgiveness a central part of their Christian walk, they have had to think long and hard about the nature of forgiving itself.  They distinguish between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  These are related but separate processes.  We often confuse the three in our thinking.  This confusion often then makes it impossible for us to consider any of the three processes.  So, it is worth exploring what might be meant by each of these processes. 

Forgiving is unconditional, or it is not forgiving.  Pardon, in distinction from forgiveness, is completely conditional.  Pardon means that the wrongdoer has been declared free from suffering any discipline or other consequences as a result of his or her actions.  The Amish Christians are very careful about dispensing pardons.  When it comes to breaking civil law, they do not protest the operations of secular law enforcement agencies. 

They may plead for leniency in many cases based on their understanding of forgiveness and their rejection of the pursuit of revenge.  The Amish of Nickel Mines and elsewhere have often visited in prison those who have done wrong by them.  They supported the family of the Nickel Mines gunman.  They do not, however, believe that damaging actions should go without response.

As Jesus hung dying on a cross, the man next to him made a clear confession.  We are worthy of our punishment, he told his colleague in banditry, but this man has done nothing deserving of such a death.  Then he asked Jesus to “remember him” in his kingdom. 

Jesus offers words of pardon in response to that clear and repentant confession— “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is interesting that Jesus did not relieve the immediate consequences of the man’s actions.  The man still died for his crimes.  Those crimes, however, did not have a permanent reality.  The man was pardoned.

Pardon requires a clear identification of the wrong done.  It requires an acknowledgement of that wrong on the part of the wrong-doer.  Pardon requires a request on the part of the wrong-doer for forgiveness.  It may still entail real consequences for the wrongs done.  But when those consequences are carried out, the record is wiped clean.  As our Amish sisters and brothers know, pardon is also a process that is most likely to happen in a community where forgiving is a regular practice; a practice deeply seated in the story of God’s forgiving us.

Pardon can only be given if the offending partner seeks it.  The offender must confess her/his wrong(s)—preferably in the presence of a trusted third party so that there is both clarity and accountability.  That confession must be honest and specific.  The offender must express genuine remorse and the desire to repent—to turn away from the offending behavior and the roots of that behavior.  The offender must also be willing to endure whatever reasonable consequences result from the wrongdoing.  All of this can happen more often in a place and among a people who know about being forgiven and forgiving.

Reconciliation is the restoring of the relationship after it has been broken.  None of this erases the wrong that has been done.  The question is, rather, “How do we live in health and hope even though such a wrong has been done?”  Desmond Tutu describes this in profound and passionate words.  “To work for reconciliation is to want to realize God’s dream for humanity—when we will know that we are indeed members of one family, bound together in a delicate network of interdependence” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 274). 

Reconciliation requires a commitment to a future “beyond me and the moment.”  At some point we will choose the embrace the future or to remain locked in the past.  As forgivers, we will choose at some point to re-narrate our lives to include the offense and the forgiveness, or we will choose to remain locked in the broken narrative where only the offense exists.

Reconciliation is an essential feature of Christian ministry and mission.  Let’s remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…”

Our ministry of reconciliation is rooted in God’s mission to us.  If we think for a moment, we can see that God has taken the path I am describing here.  “God will forgive; and with that forgiveness,” N. T. Wright says, “God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 156).  Even God is released by forgiving!

God’s forgiveness to us is unconditional.  It is an act of pure grace in Christ.  The consequences of our wrongdoing remain and must be pardoned.  This is the “new-making” power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God enters into relationship with us as healed, renewed, and forgiven sinners.  God takes us with utter seriousness but will not allow our sin to destroy the loving relationship between God and us— “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them…”

We who are forgiven, pardoned, and reconciled then become missionaries of that reconciling love to a whole world in need of God’s healing.  This is our calling, to be royal representatives of the Lord of Divine Love— “…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This means we can and must exercise some care in this process of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  Volf has some powerful words for us here.  “Forgiveness places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace.  It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.  Should those who forgive stay in this neutral zone?” (Free of Charge, page 188).  At some point a forgiver decides to move out of that neutral zone.  Otherwise, the process of forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation is stillborn. 

Reconciliation is the final destination — not the beginning of the journey.  “Forgiveness between human beings is one crucial step in a larger process,” Volf writes, “whose final goal is the embrace of former enemies in a community of love” (Free of Charge, page 189).  When we read Matthew 18:15-20, we need to back up one paragraph, to verses ten through fourteen.  What you read in those verses may sound familiar.  It is the parable of the one and the ninety-nine.  In Luke we find that parable as one of the three “lost and found” stories, the third of which is the lost son, or the parable of the prodigal.  Matthew places it in the context of conflict and reconciliation.

The punch line of the parable is crystal clear: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  This section of Matthew’s gospel is about including all in God’s reign, about seeking and saving the lost, about holding the “little ones” close, about releasing one another from sin and debt.  To use Matthew 18:15-20 as a lever by which we would exclude people from our lives or from our churches is to abuse Scripture for our own purposes. 

Can you hear the words of the father in Luke 15— “my son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again”?  That is the goal of the forgiving process, that not one of these little ones should be lost.  Forgiving begins the process.  Pardon makes it possible for the offender to accept the gift of forgiving.  Reconciliation means the restoration, to whatever degree possible, of the loving community for which our God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.

Reconciliation may happen at some point, although it may be incomplete and halting in this life.  There will come a time when the wronged spouse, for example, will need to make a decision.  I have been asked so many times, “When will I ever be able to trust her/him again?”  The short answer is, “When you decide to give that trust.” 

I have no desire to be flippant here.  That decision can only come after long thought and prayer, and after the offender has demonstrated some long-term and good faith changes in behavior.  At some point, however, the person who was wronged will need to decide if reconciliation is prudent and/or desirable.  That decision can be assisted if a trusted third party is called upon to help both partners remain accountable in healthy ways.  Sometimes, however, reconciliation will simply not be possible in this life.  Then the partners must go their separate ways.  Sometimes that is the case in conflicted congregations as well.

What if the other either refuses to forgive or to accept forgiveness?  In church fights, for example, some folks will choose to hang on to their hurts as a way put a roadblock in the way of any move forward in the life of the community.  Wright describes this as “a position of peculiar power…to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace.”  Congregations cannot and should not grant such veto power to anyone. 

If forgiveness is asked for or offered, and the other party can demonstrate no good reason for moving forward, then the community must move forward without them.  This is not a happy time for anyone.  It is a failure in the process and a concession to our still-powerful sinful desires.  But this may be the best that we can do as forgivers if the recipient cannot accept both the exclusion and the embrace, both the judgment and the reconciliation, that forgiving entails.

Let us be clear at this moment.  The community is not excluding those who refuse to participate.  L. Gregory Jones notes that “those unwilling to engage truthfully in this practice exclude themselves form the communal life of those seeking to live ‘in truth.’  Such exclusion, however, ought to be seen only as temporary and always in the context of the hope that those subject to it will return to the fellowship” (Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, page 183).

This refusal to engage in the process must be observed, of course, by other members of the church acting in good faith in steps two and three of the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.  Wright gives this council.  “Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done—even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity—so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness.  Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the prodigal son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground forever” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 141).

“In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 273).  Without forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can never truthfully move “beyond me and the moment.”  With forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can re-narrate my story in such a way that truth is told, life is celebrated, and new community is possible.

I conclude that the necessity of prosecuting and penalizing those who attempted a lynching in our nation’s capitol is unquestionable and must move forward.

Throwback Thursday Books: Great Expectations

In Advent I make it a habit to re-read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In a season of hopes fulfilled by Divine initiative, this is a story of human hopes disappointed. I was first introduced to this crowning Dickens masterpiece as a ninth-grader at the LeMars Junior High School. Margaret Hoorneman was our freshman English teacher. For a whole semester she read aloud to us the misadventures, misperceptions, and misjudgments of one Philip Pirrip, aka “Pip.” I was enchanted by the story, the writing, the language and the pathos. That has not changed in fifty years.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Years later I learned that the book was much more than a piece of the curriculum for Mrs. Hoorneman. In her retirement, she created a script for a theatrical adaptation of the work. It has been produced in dramatic and cinematic forms, but perhaps not with the passionate love which Mrs. Hoorneman devoted to the work. She was able to secure family and professional assistance in the project. It was developed into a musical that has been performed in a variety of off-Broadway venues. The charming story can be found in an article from the LeMars Daily Sentinel in 2010.

You can find the article here: https://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1434917.html.

Great Expectations is Dickens’ second to the last completed novel. In it, we find him at his full intellectual and imaginative powers. He relies far less on character names as transparent puns and two-dimensional characters as comic foils (although a few still make their appearances). Dickens had walked some of this plot path earlier, in David Copperfield, his only other “first person” narrative. In Copperfield, the hopes of the protagonist are eventually fulfilled, and they all lived happily ever after. In Great Expectations, the ending is somewhat different and, to my mind, far more compelling.

Of course, that depends on which ending you read. The book was originally serialized in the Dickens-published weekly periodical, All the Year Round. After the original ending was “tested” with the public and the critics, Dickens wrote a second and more “optimistic” ending that can be found in many of the editions. We prefer happy endings to less than happy ones. Dickens was in the business of selling books, and he knew how to respond to his market. But he noted that he preferred the original ending, as did many critics.

I am circumspect in describing the endings because I know that the book is not as widely read as it once was. I hope you will read it, and I don’t want to spoil it for you entirely. In the past week I have listened to the recorded version on Audible.com as narrated by Michael Page. I would recommend that experience if you have about eighteen hours to devote to the listening.

The chapters show the effects of serialization, often leaving the reader hanging on some narrative cliff or another. So it is well-suited to listening in installments. If you want the actual serial experience, discipline yourself to hearing one chapter at a time (for 59 sessions). The book is filled with archaic expressions appropriate to the time. If you are new to the book, I would recommend an annotated edition that can lay out the historical setting and explain some of the most obscure turns of phrase.

Here’s an inexpensive annotated edition: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Expectations-Annotated-Charles-Dickens-ebook/dp/B00GA8DLTI.

Why do I return to it? Certainly, it is a mature and clear-eyed examination of the nature of human hopes, of self-deception, of revenge and regret, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book offers unblinking views of the trials of class and privilege in nineteenth century England and narrates from a firsthand perspective the pains and prospects of social climbing and social collapse. The book is filled with memorable characters, some of great complexity and none more so than Pip. The artistry is worth the time by itself.

When I was young I found it a revelation of my own hopes and failings. Pip sought to leave his roots and re-invent himself in a new setting. I have traveled that sorry path too many times to count. He never knew how good he had it at home and thus never did find a real home for his heart. Pip was well-schooled in the notion that as he was he was never worthy, so he had to perform a part in order to deserve approval. Pip’s hopes were always wishes to be fulfilled rather than a calling to be answered. Thus, he was almost always profoundly disappointed.

It is a deeply theological book as well. It is, though Dickens certainly did not intend such, a meditation on the theology of the cross. Pip’s salvation always comes from the most unexpected quarters. His rescue is always hidden under the form of its opposite, and he is always looking for grace and love in all the wrong places. The one who most nearly approaches the role of Christ figure in the novel is in many ways one of the least attractive characters. He is one who reminds me of the words from Isaiah 53 — “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

The book is filled, in the final chapters, with affecting scenes of confession and forgiveness. After years of malice and manipulation, several of the main characters come to awareness of their profound brokenness and the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of others. In a few instances, things can be put right and are. In most cases, there is some measure of healing but little opportunity for reparation. Forgiveness may be genuine, but it may not always displace regret in the end.

Great Expectations is a meditation on the nature of personal suffering and the various ways we humans respond to that suffering. Some characters respond to their loss with desires for vengeance and acts of violence. Some are dulled into despair and made dumb in the face of their pain. Some use suffering as a bludgeon or a scalpel to control people and circumstances. And a few are softened by their suffering into a deeper and fuller humanity.

One of the great quotes in the book comes from Estella, the anti-heroine. “And if you could say that to me then,” she murmurs to Pip, “you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” To be bent and broken but into a better shape — that’s a hope that I can share. I suspect that no other words in the book were closer to Dickens’ own sentiments as he wrote.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Pip says as he recovers from his own weeping of remorse at another point, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” In the face of the famed British reserve, Dickens pleads for authentic humanity to open us to life and to bind us together across our differences. Confession and repentance can cleanse our hearts. It is a pertinent plea for our time as well.