Readings Numbers 5:5-10, Matthew 5:21-26
There’s a certain archetype in action films and westerns, that of the haunted hero. When we meet this character, we are struck by their devotion to pursuing justice, or risking their life protecting the vulnerable. And yet, over time, and often during some camp fire confession, it is revealed that their motivation for pursuing the good, is not altogether altruistic. It is revealed that in their past they committed some awful act that led to unspeakable and irreparable harm, which they have now devoted their life to rectify. Of course, what makes the haunted hero, well haunted, is that they can no longer directly fix the situation they caused. Thus, as the next best thing, they are devoted to helping anyone they can in an attempt to do no further harm, in an attempt to clear the ledger, in an attempt to ensure what happened once will happen no more…
To what may we compare the haunted hero? While Christians are not called to be haunted by the failings in our past, (after all Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered), Christians are nonetheless charged to take seriously any harm we have caused, any charge of wrongdoing or mistreatment that someone holds against us, to take seriously unreconciled relationships and potential enmity within the community. And so, without valorising hauntedness, Christians can nonetheless recognise in the vocation of such a haunted hero, our own calling as disciples. For, as our two readings demonstrated, we should be unsettled by the notion of having done wrong, and comprehend the task of needing to rectify, repair, and restore any we have hurt.
The readings from Numbers emphasises the need to deliver reparations (full restitution plus one fifth) to the wronged party. And if that wronged party is deceased, the restitution must be made to their kin, and if no kin can be found, then it goes to the community. The requirement to make right does not dissipate just because the parties directly and immediately involved are no longer present. The gospel reading also emphasises the onus of reconciliation and repair is placed upon we who have done wrong. If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister. Do not wait and appeal to the law of the land, make right swiftly.
Both readings make it clear, repentance is displayed in repair and restitution. As the people of God we live under this commandment.
For the religious life is a communal life, and so the life of the community (its health, honesty, and hospitality) matters a great deal. Interpersonal conflict, community brokenness, harsh words and mistreatment, wrongdoing and exploitation – these things cannot be side-lined or postponed while we attend to our worship and spiritual growth. They are not secondary, not fringe, not optional. Worship is not a discreet category able to be cordoned off from our life together. We do not get to neglect relations with people in order to pursue our relationship with God; after all whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. The altar cannot be approached before reconciliation is sought, we do not take communion until we have passed the peace, what good are platitudes, the apostle James reminds his community, without attention to material need, for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
The haunted hero’s journey tends to resolve when they let go of the guilt they have been carrying all these years. They must forgive themselves of the wrong they committed, move forward into healing, and open themselves to love once more. Importantly however, such an act doesn’t mean they give up their vocation to be a hero. They don’t stop helping others, protecting the vulnerable, or seeking justice. They keep doing that, just, less haunted. In this way again, the (now-not-so-haunted) hero and the Christian are similar. For we too are called to seek forgiveness as those already forgiven, to seek reconciliation as those already reconciled, to seek restoration as those already restored, to pay restitution as those whose debts are erased. The spiritual and the material, our worship and our community cannot be severed, because our life together is made possible by God’s life with us, as the scripture says: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another…. if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.
As children of God, Christ in his perfect righteousness has shared with us the spirit of adoption. Jesus has shared with us a portion of the divine life, and so we are not asked to be haunted heroes: we do not right wrongs to work off a debt that cannot be satisfied. Instead, we are invited into a family, and asked to take seriously its life and health. Such an invitation (to abide with others in the love of God), asks us to prioritise repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, for it is by this that we become a people of freedom, joy, and peace. By leaving our gift at the altar and hurrying off to the brother or sister we have wronged, we overcome any split between worship and community, and embody fully our calling to be a people who love one another as Christ has loved us.
Image, Reconciliation, Sculpture by Josefina de Vasconcellos
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