Homily for September 12, 2021
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
“Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,
able to keep the whole body in check.” – James 3:2
We’ll give Augustine the benefit of the doubt and say not that Augustine was unfamiliar with today’s reading from the book of James, but say rather that in a moment of candor with a dear friend Augustine momentarily set aside his familiarity with the book of James when, in a letter to this friend, Marcellinus, Augustine wrote,
“Cicero, the prince of Roman orators, says of someone that ‘he never uttered a word that he would wish to recall.’ High praise indeed! But more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man.”
Though James and Augustine seem to say the opposite—“anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check”; versus only a “complete ass” would never utter a word that he would wish to recall—what James and Augustine have in common is that both acknowledge that we all fail in the control of our tongue; we all say things we wish we could take back.
What can we do when we have said something we can’t un-say?
There is no hard-and-fast rule about what to do when we say something we wish we could take back—and there probably shouldn’t be, given the complexity of our circumstances. But the Bible has something to say about what we might do when we wish to take back what we have already said or done. Perhaps the Bible’s most famous story about what we can do when we might wish to take back what we have already said or done is the story of the Prodigal Son. Recall how the Prodigal, once he “came to himself” in that “distant country” where he had “squandered his property in dissolute living,” said to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned…[and] am no longer worthy to be called your son…’” The first thing we can do when we say something we wish to take back is to acknowledge our fault, and to apologize to the one whom we have offended and to ask their forgiveness.
Now it may be that the one whom we offended will not or is not ready to forgive. Recall the older son who became angry and refused to go in and who said to his father about his brother, the Prodigal: “‘When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’… And…he refused to go in.” Though we may apologize, it could be that the one whom we have offended may not forgive.
Though the other may not forgive, the third thing we can do is to nonetheless come to forgive ourselves. Again, recall the parable,
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him… and said to his slaves… ‘Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again!’
God can forgive us. Can we forgive ourselves?
Lastly, notice how at the son’s return the father does not interrogate; he does not drive home the son’s culpability or assert claims about his inadequacy; nor does the father insist on a period of probation or rehabilitation. Rather, the Father focuses on the present—“Quickly, bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet… Let us eat and celebrate!” About repentance and the present moment, Martin Smith writes,
Repentance… is not about erasing the past—we cannot erase the past—[repentance] has little to do with raking over the past and everything to do with coming to accept the here-and-nowness of Christ… who trusts us now to be expressions of his life, who now recruits us to be his “walking sacraments.”
James is right, and Augustine is right. “All of us make many mistakes,” writes James. Never uttering a word that one would wish to recall is “High praise indeed!” writes Augustine “…but more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man.” We all say things we wish we could take back. When we do, we can 1) apologize and ask for forgiveness; 2) recognize that the one whom we offended may not forgive; 3) accept God’s forgiveness and hopefully begin to forgive ourselves; and 4) focus on the present, learning to see that in this present moment Jesus trusts us to be expressions of his life, to be his “walking sacraments,” who, though we may have fallen, yet are forgiven and redeemed, and who are called to manifest in our own lives now the risen life of Jesus Christ.