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Terrance KleinSeptember 13, 2023
From left, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in a scene from "Women Talking." (Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing via AP)  

A Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 27:30; 28:7 Romans 14:7-9 Matthew 18:21-25

A crisis confronts the women who have gathered in a hayloft. They are members of an agrarian religious community that shuns the modern world. To their horror, they have discovered that men in their community have sexually abused many of them. For years, women have been unknowingly drugged with sedatives intended for livestock. Their half-conscious abuse and bruises were dismissed as dreams, witchcraft or outright lies. Now a man has been caught in the act, and they must decide their collective response.

These women have been chosen to determine how all the women in the colony will respond, and three choices confront them in the hayloft: They can forgive the men who performed or permitted these heinous acts; they can confront and fight these men; or they can flee the colony, taking their children with them.

Is forgiveness really an option? Yes, for all these women it is. They have shunned the modern world so that they can practice their faith. And could that faith be any clearer than it is? Jesus concludes his parable of the wicked servant, tortured by his master for his failure to forgive others, by saying:

So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart (Mt 18:35).

In pondering this first option, one of the oldest women in the community, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), tells the others:

It is a part of our faith to forgive. We have always forgiven those who have wronged us. Why not now? We will be excommunicated, forced to leave the colony in disgrace if we do not forgive these men, and if we are excommunicated, we forfeit our place in heaven.

We learn all of this in the first few minutes of the 2022 film “Women Talking.” Most of what follows is the women pondering the other two options: fight or flight. Why do they reluctantly set aside the option of forgiveness?

Because sin has consequences. Women and girls have been violated, and the decision to forgive will not only not undo this but it will also prolong the practice if the men interpret forgiveness as freedom to follow their evil urges. As the women in the movie now painfully understand, sin, human failure, has consequences, results that are quite real, that must be addressed.

We often think of sin as simply a failure to follow rules. Perhaps God, who created those rules, will punish us. The problem with this understanding is that it distinguishes three realities that are never distinct in reality: God, sin and punishment. Punishment is not something that God subsequently attaches to sin. Sin is its own punishment, because when we sin, we disfigure ourselves and wound the world God has created. God need not step in and impose a punishment.

Catholic thought sees the world not only as an expression of God’s will but also as an expression of God’s very being. The world is ordered toward truth and goodness because God is both.

The roots of the shallow, contemporary understanding of sin can be traced to the 16th century. On the eve of the Protestant Reformation, new philosophical currents began to think of God as only arbitrarily connected to the world, enough so that they could pose a question Catholic thought cannot even conceive. If God is sovereign, might God decide to do evil? Would evil then become good?

Philosophies, the mental pictures we draw, always influence how we act. In the 16th century, some church leaders suggested that they could dismiss, for a price, the punishment due to sin after death. Protestant reformers correctly sought to counter this distortion in the faith, but they did not do so in a philosophical vacuum. They responded by proclaiming what they called forensic or imputed justification. God declares us to be forgiven, and so we simply are righteous. Note that both the abusers and the reformers pictured punishment as arbitrarily conjoined to sin.

Any student who has ever pleaded with a teacher to reverse a failing grade is familiar with the same. Without mastering the content of the course, one is simply declared to have passed it. But who would choose a physician who obtained a medical degree by pleading with professors?

The Catholic Church had to agree with its would-be reformers. We cannot buy or earn our way into heaven. We are reconciled to God not through our own efforts but by the alienation-ending death of Jesus upon the cross. The reformers were quite correct in teaching that the initiative had to be God’s. If you jump off a fast-moving vehicle, you will not reboard it unless it turns around to retrieve you.

The cause of conflict in the church was not about the primacy of God’s grace. It was about how God is related to the world and to us. Does the order we find in this world reflect the very mind of God or is it something arbitrary, like rules that stand only as long as we play a given game? When the contest ends, the rules disappear. My sister used to play the board game Monopoly in just this way. Once I had cornered the market, she would overturn the board and ask, “Where are your riches now?”

Does God simply declare us to be forgiven or does God undo the harm that our actions have wrought? Put another way, does God cover over our wounds or heal them?

Contrary to popular opinion, both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed strongly in the importance of good works. Wanting to keep the emphasis upon God’s initiative, they insisted that good works, changed lives, were part of what they called our sanctification rather than our justification. Both moments are essential to a life lived in Christ. In other words, good works are not what causes God to forgive us but the result of God’s having forgiven us. Here again, the church of Rome had to agree with them.

Considering all of this, the Council of Trent responded that the early church confessed four stages in our reconciliation with God, granting, as the reformers correctly insisted, that each moment is itself a gift of God’s grace.

The first is contrition. We see sin for what it is, and we abhor it.

The second is confession. We admit that we cannot deliver ourselves from the evil we have wrought. We come before God, asking for the healing that is the forgiveness of sin.

Satisfaction, which is truly another word for sanctification, follows in third place. We cooperate with God’s grace to change our lives, to undo the effects of sin: We make restitution; we apologize to those whom we have offended; we change our behavior; we pray and we fast; we engage in voluntary acts of sacrifice to show that we are entirely dependent upon a loving God.

Finally comes the celebration—a wonderfully apt word—of the sacrament Trent called “Penance.” Speaking in the name of Christ and his church, the priest declares us to be absolved of sin, loosed from its bonds, again united to God who is our origin.

Perhaps unfortunately, modern Catholic practice, which Trent reflected, inverts this ordering. We are declared forgiven and told to make satisfaction through our imposed penance, which in modern practice, perhaps under the influence of the reformers’ emphasis upon the primacy of Christ’s action, is quite perfunctory.

In the ancient church, penance—sometimes a life of it—preceded the celebration of the sacrament. The ancient church understood that the primary actor in the forgiveness of sin is the author of life itself, Christ. We cannot claim heaven through asceticism alone, but an ascetic life is our way of creating space for Christ in our lives, our sanctification. We live differently in the world because we live in him, because we already live halfway into a world yet to come.

How far removed that conversation in the hayloft is from our modern world! These women know that they must forgive the men of their community. They and their men have withdrawn from the world, they live an ascetic life, because they want to live in Christ, where forgiveness of sin is a birthright of the baptized.

But as the women themselves come to see, before they can claim that Christ’s grace has triumphed, they must first do something to allow that grace to change their circumstances. They must either fight or flee to end the evil. Then forgiveness of sin can begin. They cannot simply declare that they do not suffer the terrible effects of sin.

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