Matthew 5:21-26 and “A Settlement” by Mary Oliver from What Do We Know, Poems and Prose Poems
Psalm 19:14: Let the words of our mouths, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a small village in the rolling hills of Transkei, part of the southeastern region of South Africa. At birth his name translated colloquially as “troublemaker” and it wasn’t until later when he began school at age 7 that he was given his English name, Nelson. His father died when Nelson was a teenager and he went to live with the chief of the Thembu. There he studied and learned and became confident in himself.
As Bill Keller wrote, “Unlike many black South Africans, whose confidence had been crushed by generations of officially proclaimed white superiority, Nelson Mandela never seemed to doubt that he was the equal of any man. “The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” said Ahmed Kathrada, an activist who shared a prison cell with Mr. Mandela and was part of his inner circle. “That always gave him a strength.”
Mandela was 44 when he was shackled and placed on a ferry to the Robben Island prison where he spent 21 years in captivity. During that time he wasn’t allowed to attend the funerals of his mother and his oldest son, who died in a car accident. And in total Mandela served 27 years in prison, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Verster Prison.
He was 71 when he was finally released.
The question that was asked of Mr. Mandela most frequently when he was set free, was how, after white people had intentionally and systematically degraded his community and his family, tortured and killed many of his friends, and cast him into prison for nearly three decades, how could he possibly be so free of anger and spite?
In an interview in 2007, Mr. Mandela was asked after such cruel treatment and seasons of torment, how do you keep hatred in check? He responded with this, “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.”
Hating gets in the way.
The teaching we heard from the Gospel of Matthew today is a smaller part of a bigger exhortation on everything from adultery and lust to divorce and swearing. It even includes these harsh words, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Not surprisingly, scholars disagree on exactly what each part of this passage means, but as Ronald Allen writes, all of these themes, reconciliation, adultery, divorce and cursing “cohere around a common motif: dealing with broken relationships from the perspective of the realm.” In other words, Jesus puts all of these together because while everyone of us has broken pieces within us, while all of us has broken places in our lives, we are in fact meant to feel whole. We are in fact meant to be reconciled. We are in fact meant to heal.
Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[e] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister” Put the other things down until this is done. First be reconciled.
The Greek word for reconciled is diallassó and this is the only time in the entire Christian scriptures that it is used. Diallasso means to change, to change the mind, to reconcile, to renew.
So what is Jesus getting at?
In the places where we fail to forgive, where we have fallen short of reconciliation, in all of the places where brokenness remains and healing seems too distant, energy is going toward the past.
I love what Anne Lamott says about this, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”
So reconciliation is the chance to put our energy toward changing ourselves, toward changing how we ourselves relate our past and our present, instead of waiting for everyone else to.
Ervin Stutzman writes, “Jesus made it clear that forgiveness need not be mutual to be effective.” “It takes concerted effort and always awaits someone who is willing to take the first step. Jesus knew that if his disciples blamed others for their relational problems, or waited for someone else to make all the changes one desired, reconciliation would remain a distant or impossible goal. He knew that we can’t change other people, but we can change the way we relate to them. We can make sure we treat others as we would want to be treated.” “Forgiveness can be a unilateral move, offered to the offender without needing to agree on the nature of the wrong. It could help move at least one party move toward reconciliation, a gift of grace…”
Reconciliation isn’t about the miraculous moment when those who have harmed us suddenly have an epiphany or a personality transplant, rather it is a reminder that healing broken relationships within ourselves and others, can come over the long haul, when we can change the way we relate to what is. Diallasso means to change. So then to be reconciled is to change the way our mind and heart respond. As Janet reminded us at Guiding Council this week, this is one of the strongest powers we have, how we respond, we can choose what occupies our inner life.
Again from writer Anne Lamott, “I really believe that earth is forgiveness school – I really believe that’s why they brought us here, and then left us without any owner’s manual. I think we’re here to learn forgiveness. For me, it all begins with the hardest work of all, of being so crazily imperfect, and so sensitive and thin-skinned, and looking the way I look instead of like Cate Blanchett, which is disappointing. And all of the things we internalize in our younger years that other people might have said or hinted or even bullied us for.” “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare...”
Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
Often forgiveness and reconciliation are spoken of as a gift to someone else, but perhaps it is a gift that we give ourselves. It is a step toward freedom, where we do not let ourselves defined by what is broken, imperfect or unfinished, allowing us to live beyond what has been hard or hurtful. Forgiveness is the first step to reconciliation and perhaps Jesus is saying that it opens the doors of our inner prisons, liberating us from letting ourselves be trapped by the pain of the past.
When Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away;” I wonder if he is pointing to the truth that some things can rot us from the inside, if we aren’t mindful of what we take on and what we take in. So instead of hitching our hearts to what cannot be undone, we can give energy to what we need, to what the world needs. That is liberating.
Mary Oliver wrote, “Therefore, dark past, I’m about to do it. I’m about to forgive you, for everything.”
This tells us that forgiveness need not be mutual to be effective, to be healing, to be freeing. To be reconciled is not to have arrived at a perfect mending of the all of the brokenness, it is not a moment when all relations are restored, when all cracks are filled; rather it is an inner posture, where we can slowly change the way our mind and heart responds to all of the brokenness that abounds. It is finding a way to love what is. It is freeing up inner space for love because we know for sure that hating clouds the mind. Beloved of God, let us first be reconciled with ourselves, let us claim our power, let us leave the prison of bitterness behind. May it be so.