Therefore, if you are offering your gift
at the altar and there remember that
your brother has something against you,
leave your gift there in front of the altar.
First go and be reconciled to your brother,
then come and offer your gift.
Throughout my experience with cancer I often prayed to be given the grace to be vulnerable. Sometimes I was granted this gift, but sometimes—I think primarily when anxieties of one kind or another set in—I moved back into my defenses. Often without even knowing it.
My defenses hurt people. At a minimum, my defenses create a sense of separation from other people. As a result, others will feel held at arms length or even pushed away.
When we harm others, we have a choice to make. We can deny or minimize the harm we have caused—and thus cause more harm. We can sink into shame about how bad we are—and thus keep the focus on us while continuing to miss the needs of those we have hurt. Or we can make amends.
Making amends means that we face the truth about the harm we have done, intentional or not. It means we go to those we have harmed and acknowledge that we have hurt them, and we let them say whatever they need to say. (We only do this, however, when we are reasonably certain that doing so will not cause additional harm.)
And then, when we have acknowledged the harm we have done, we offer to do what we can to make repairs and listen carefully. We do not ask for forgiveness. We do not ask for anything from them. Instead we offer to make things right.
Sometimes this means restoring what we have taken. Whether it is time or attention or resources. Sometimes it means praying for the grace to make changes in the way we conduct ourselves.
The gospel of Luke (19:1-9) tells the story of a man named Zacchaeus who lived in Jericho and was a tax collector. Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through his town and wanted to see him. There was a large crowd and, because Zacchaeus was a small man, he was not able to see Jesus. So, in order to get a good view, Zacchaeus ran ahead of Jesus and the crowd and climbed a tree next to the road.
Tax collectors in Israel were people who by definition harmed others. They were Jewish people who were serving the Roman government by collecting taxes from their own people. They were seen as traitors. To make matters worse, their pay came from taking whatever extra they could—over and above what the Roman rulers demanded. They often took a lot for themselves. Zacchaeus evidently was making a very good living as a chief tax collector because he was a wealthy man.
When Jesus passed by the tree where Zacchaeus was waiting, he stopped and called to him, inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus, who was shunned and hated by everyone, responded to this attention. The crowd, however, was not at all pleased. They judged Jesus and said, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Luke’s gospel tells us that something happened to Zacchaeus during this encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus became willing to make amends. He is recorded as saying: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
That is what it means to make amends. We see that we have done harm and our desire, by God’s grace, is now to repair the harm we have caused.
Not all amends can be as concrete as the amends Zacchaeus made. It is often not a matter of returning money we have taken. Sometimes the harm we have done comes from the defensive ways we have interacted with others. This kind of harm requires what some call “living amends.” That is, it requires that we commit ourselves to live differently.
For me, making amends often involves praying for the humility and courage to let go of my defenses and to live from a more honest and vulnerable place. A few days before my second surgery, one of my friends left a voice message telling me that she was struggling because I had seemed defensive when she had asked how I was feeling in anticipation of the coming surgery. My defensive response had left her feeling pushed away and hurt. I made amends by calling her back and acknowledging that I had been defensive and that my defensiveness had been hurtful to her. I also told her that I did not want any walls between us. These amends and the conversation that followed helped to restore the trust between us.
We cannot live in this world without hurting others. Knowingly and unknowingly we too often break the bridge of love that keeps us connected to others. When we realize that we have done this, it is time to repair the bridge.
According to Jesus (Matthew 5:23), if we realize that we have hurt someone, making amends to them is a priority more important than worship. To make amends is to live humbly, honestly, lovingly with others. It changes us. It heals our relationships.
When you don’t know what to do…make amends.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What have you done (or not done) during this time of difficulty that may have hurt someone else?
2. What might you do to make amends?