I have been a Christian and regularly attending church for nearly two decades now, including my seven years as a pastor. During that period, I have heard and even given sermons on forgiveness. Some have been rather prosaic, but others have been rather powerfully moving exhortations to the central place that forgiveness have in the Christian life. But recently, I have come to realize that I have a hard time recalling a sermon that addressed those who sinned and on the place on making amends. I recall a couple times saying something along the lines of “if you mess you, fess up” in a couple of sermons that talked about repentance, but in the end, even I don’t recall preaching on making amends.
On the surface of it, it seems that the theological traditions I have belonged to do more preaching to those who have been wronged than those who are wrongdoers. Of course, this isn’t actually true as there are many sermons that have warned against a litany of sins against God and against others. Then, we will hear of sermons about confessing our sins to God and repent before God, while recognizing there is nothing we can give in return to God. But, amidst all this, we aren’t very good at exhorting people as to how to respond to those they have wronged after they have wronged. Why is this the case?
It isn’t because it isn’t in the Bible. In Matthew 5.23-24, Jesus extols the importance of trying to reconciled to a brother that one has offended. While the New Testament doesn’t delve much further into the place of making amends, the Torah has multiple commandments that provides specific instructions for making restitution to those who have experienced a material loss due to someone else’s negligence or malice. But, perhaps precisely because the Torah has been relegated as irrelevant in many Protestant circles, these commandments don’t get much focus. Furthermore, as the bulk of the material of New Testament is primarily addressed to people who are prone to be taken advantage of and persecuted, especially by those with more power and status than them, the ethicizing from the Gospel focuses primarily on forgiveness in light of Jesus who forgives.
In addition to the lack of mention of amends-making in places where (Protestant) Christians tend to look to the most for ethical guidance, I want to suggest a few other reasons why you rarely hear sermons on amends-making.
Firstly, amends-making can be confused with placation. On the surface, amends-making and placation can look very similar in terms of actions. Given that Western individualism has taught us to not willingly put ourselves in an inferior position to another, we can be averse to anything that smells of placation. However, amends-making and placation have very different motivational and relational concerns behind them, At the heart of making amends is a concern for the person who has been wronged. The goal for making amends is to try to mitigate the relational damage and breach of mistrust that has occurred due to one’s own sin or error. Meanwhile, placation is principally about satisfying another person’s sense of entitlement or expectations, often joined with a sense of wrath. In amends-making we humble ourselves before those who we feel we have hurt or harmed, whereas in placation we surrender to those who feel they have been wrong. Amends-making is about the restore the social fabric that our actions have ripped, whereas placation is principally about ensuring our own well-being.
This leads to the second reason: the meaning and importance of amends-making can only be well comprehended when we see ourselves as fundamentally participating in a web of relationships. When we primarily think about ourselves as individuals pursuing our own well-being, our response to the possibility of our own wrong-doing against others is to preserve ourselves and our status as much as we can. When individualism becomes a persistent mindset, it leads to the fundamental devaluation of the relational bonds that have been damaged by our actions. As a consequence, we don’t give much consideration to the social bonds of trust and the way our actions strengthen or weaken those bonds. Instead, as individuals, we implicitly work with a sense of entitlement and expectation that other people should trust us, regardless of what we have done and how we have responded to another person’s pleas and complaints.
Thirdly, sermons about forgiveness can make both the sinner and the person who is hurt by others feel good about themselves. For the parts of us that have been victim, forgiveness is provided to make them feel some sense of moral self-satisfaction. For the parts of us that have been wrong-doers, we feel the burden of our past sins not haunting us and us being accepted as we are. The message of forgiveness can appeal to us as individuals. Meanwhile, amends-making doesn’t provide that sense of individualistic self-satisfaction. It can stir up feels of pain and resentment in those who have been hurt without ever feeling restored. It can make people who judge themselves for their own sins feel that much more judged. While the acts of amends-making can be very therapeutic and healing to both parties, sermons about amends-making aren’t necessarily so.
Finally, within many Protestant Christians circles, we have a predilection to regulate our relationships with each other according to a substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement and forgiveness. An orthodox understanding the atonement of Jesus Christ is the idea that God does in Jesus Christ what we could not do ourselves.1 However, the New Testament never suggests that the problem of human weakness is the inability to pay back to God what our sins have taken from him. Rather, the focus is on the inability of humans to live in right relationship with God apart from God’s action to transform us. Nevertheless, because we have understood the orthodox understanding of the atonement and forgiveness in terms of restitution, we then are inclined to draw the conclusion that forgiveness excludes any expectations of amends-making. To be called to make amends seems to be the opposite of being forgiven.
To boil this all down: we don’t comprehend the significance of amends-making because our individualistic culture mixed with a particular way of defining God’s forgiveness in Christ means that we fail to comprehend the importance of amends-making. The most we are told to do is to apologize for what we do (which may be regard as part of repentance), but we don’t really get much instruction beyond that. Because our thinking about ourselves is inundated with thoughts of ourselves as individuals, we experience a blind spot to the importance of trust in our relationships with each other. We just don’t get the importance of amends-making.
Nevertheless, there are signposts in our lives that continue to show us the importance of amends-making. Most anyone who gets married either learns the importance of making amends or they probably don’t have a long-lasting, happy marriage. The rates of failing marriage in the West are perhaps contributed to by our individualistic mindset creating a large blindspot to the importance of trust and amends-making. Some people never pick up on it. Meanwhile, those who have good, healthy marriages learn how important the bonds of trust and amends-making can be for relationships. Intimacy requires trust and so amends-making is a critical part of allow for intimacy to build.
However, beyond just marriage and intimacy, trust and amends-making is an important part of keeping our social fabric together. Trust isn’t just important for having intimacy, but it is important part of cooperation, sharing, and collaboration. Without the establishment and maintenance of trust, people will spend more time protecting themselves from potential vulnerabilities and less time working together for mutual benefit. When this trust is gone, communities, organizations, institutions, nations, etc. either experience a high degree of conflict for control, they splinter and separate, or the people become increasingly apathetic.
When people have been hurt, whether it be a spouse, a friend, a colleague, a subordiante, etc., the person experiences a rift in their social relations that can not be reduced to specific material damages or general sense of their psychological harm. They feel devalued and unimportant in relation to that person who wronged them, in addition to any other persons or social groups that facilitated or protected the wrong-doer. Thus, amends-making is not simply about restitution for material damages or offered an apology to try to reverse any psychological harm that has been done. Amends-making seeks to show that wronged person that they are worthy of being treated fairly and appropriately and that the wrongdoer is humble enough to acknowledge their responsibility to act fairly and appropriately. Apologies and restitution may be instrumental in making amends. However, they don’t themselves constitute making amends as they are about to acknowledge responsibility and addressing any material damages, but they don’t necessarily restore the bonds of trust. If apologies and restitution are not understood to be a symbolic representation of the wrongdoers own responsibility and recognition of the value of the person who has been wronged, then they don’t actually make amends for broken trust.
With this in mind, I think we can begin to comprehend the context for Jesus words in Matthew 5.13-14:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (NRSV)
There are a couple points of important to note: Firstly, Jesus’ words here are in the context of discussing the problem of acting out of anger (Matthew 5.21-22). However, Jesus does not address merely emotional anger, but rather an anger that a person has acted upon. Jesus focuses his exhortation on the person who has acted angry in such a way that their brother has something against them. When Jesus addresses anger, he is addressing the person who has done wrong because of their anger, reminding them that they are accountable for what they do in their anger. Overlooking what one has done simply because it wasn’t as severe as murder doesn’t mean one is not accountable for what one has done. There are plenty of ways to breach trust that goes beyond the Torah’s commandments against murder.
Secondly, Jesus words are not simply talking about the importance of amends-making. Rather, Jesus is reminding people whose religious activity has made them forget the importance of amends-making. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus targets a form of religiosity that exalts the self and one’s own purposes. In Matthew 6.1-6 and 16-18, Jesus targets specific religious practices of piety that are done for the sake of one’s own benefit rather than one’s own relationship to God through fasting and prayer and relationship to the poor through almsgiving. Jesus is addressing a similar problem in Matthew 5.13-14. In providing an offering before God, the person is acting on the assumption that there is a reconciliation between them and God. However, in so doing, they may overlook or forget what they have done to another person in the community. In focusing on their own presumed reconciliation to God through their offering, they forget the importance of their relationships with other people in the community. Their sense of their own relationship to God has made them devalue the importance of their relationship to other people. So, we can take Matthew 5.13-14 to be part of Jesus’ larger criticism of a specific pattern of religiosity.
We can perhaps refer to this form of religiosity as a proto-individualistic religion that the more highly exalted Jewish religious teachers, that is the Pharisees, would have begun to engage in, focusing on themselves and what was of most benefit to themselves. Their religiosity had created a huge blindspot not only of their actual relationship to God, substituting social status in place of God’s approval, but also their personal interactions and relationships with other people in the community.
In other words, Jesus reminds people of the importance of amends-making because their pattern of religiosity has caused them to become numb and blind to the importance of their social bonds. However, people who have learned to become part of a community by seeing themselves as members of the community, which is more than being an individual who participates in something they label community, would intuitively understand the importance of trust and amends-making. It would be readily comprehended as part of the life of love. When one is being perfected in love, one doesn’t need a specific law to teach the importance of trust and seeking to reestablish that trust when it has experienced fissures; the very experience of loving one another2 implicitly teaches this through experiencing the social bonds of trust.
This may offer an explanation as to why the New Testament doesn’t address amends-making, whereas the Torah has various instructions about restitution. As many of the cultures of the Meditteranean were group-oriented, it would have been readily understood that living in part of a community entails making amends when one has wronged another. They would have implicitly understood the importance of trust. What would often be forgotten, however, is the importance of forgiveness. The Greco-Roman culture actually celebrated some acts of vengeance and the Jewish culture felt the deep antagonism towards their Roman occupiers who also often made derisive judgments towards Jews. In such an environment, amends-making would have been implicitly understood, but forgiveness would not have been regarded as important.
However, by contrast, the Torah was God’s instructions given through Moses to establish the relationship of a people who were divided into multiple tribes. Furthermore, their experience of enslavement would have made them tempted to live our their newfound freedom through the exodus by seeking their own pleasures and concerns. The prescriptions for restitution in the Torah would serve to remind the people of their responsibility to each other when they caused some sort of harm to another. Not only should one seek to make restitution to God through the sacrifice, but one should also seek to restore to another what one has taken from them. Thus, the instructions of the Torah seeks to form a fragmented people, tempted towards self-indulgence to be responsible to each other. Among other things, the Torah would teach Israel to be a people in right relationship to God and to each other.
To conclude: this point here is that perhaps we as Christians should give more time and consideration to how we teach and thinking about amends-making. Not only would it help us to built trust in a culture that does not trust because we have forgotten the importance of trust in the first place. It would also aid us into living into the fuller aspects of the Gospel, as amends-making is also an act of practicing the very attitude and mindset we should have for other people that would help prevent our sinning against them in the future. Insofar as wrong-doing and sinning against others is due to our devaluation of other people, the practice of amends-making also trains us to live in humility in relationship to other people.
However, allow me to point out one potential minefield from personal experience. One time I had lost my cool in anger and said some things that I felt needed to be addressed, but I did it in a very immature manner. As a result, I hurt another person who I felt had hurt me. After learning of this and with the passage of time that had been requested, I sought to try to reach out to this person. I was seeking to make amends for what I did, as clumsy as I was. My attempt at amends-making was met with suspicion with little early recognition that it could have been a genuine act of contrition; I tried to explain that I was trying to “clear some brush” but I was lectured on how it wasn’t that. Making amends is not always taken to be such. When trust has been lost and people are blind to the importance of trust and amends-making, a person trying to making amends may not be percieved as such. It likely won’t even be considered a remote possibility. In a culture as our, genuine amends-making will be seem very unfamiliar, especially to people who have not experienced another person acknowleding and taking responsibility for the hurt they caused. So, learn from my experience and recognize that not everyone wants people to make amends.
- It is appropriate to call this substitution in a sense, but the NT nor the OT passages the authors of the NT use to understand the significance of Jesus’ death doesn’t use the language of substitution. Substitution is our theological language used to describe what happens in places such as Isaiah 53.4-5, but nowhere is the language of ‘substitution’ used as a causal explanation of the atonement.
- This is different from the instruction to “know you are loved” that we can often use to encourage people to be part of a community. That isn’t to suggest to saying “know you are loved” to motivate being involved in a church, small group, etc. is wrong, but only that when people engage in community simply to be loved but do not themselves recognize their place in giving love, such appeals to be part of a community can foster narcissistic exploitation of the members of the community.