A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Words and God’s Word

By Fr Tom Ryan SM

“I admit I made a mistake”

The above six most important words can be summed up: “I apologise.” 

It means expressing, in some form or another, one’s regret or sorrow for hurting or wronging someone else. Sometimes, the hurt has been intentional. At other times, it may be through a misunderstanding; an honest mistake where no harm was intended. 

Let’s consider the first sort of apology. I may have rushed to judgment about someone and not taken the trouble to get all the facts. It may well have suited me not to check things out. The partial (and distorted) version suits my view of that person, even justifies it. 

Is that fair, especially if I make it an item for gossip with others? It raises the question: how do I handle the truth in talking about others? It’s a concern found in the letter of James, “that no one can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). 

When I lie, I deliberately intend not to tell the truth—without bending it, changing the facts, spicing it up a bit. Our concern here is how such tactics may harm a person or their reputation.

Being human, there are those we find we avoid, dislike, even distrust. We might tend not to speak well of them, even tend to distort stories about them behind their back. Such actions can mean someone is treated unjustly. How would I feel to be treated like that? Again, the information passed on may be truthful, but is it fair? 

In these scenarios, the person discussed has no chance to defend themselves; their reputation is being eroded. Have I considered I have a duty to try to repair the harm I have done to that person? Do I need to become more aware of this?

Let’s turn to the other situation—of misunderstanding, of making an honest mistake. We’re human. Mistakes are part of life. We can all think of moments when we misunderstood what someone has said or done. Not out of malice or ill-will. It’s just being human. A quick “I’m sorry, I got that wrong” and life moves on. 

The prospect of making an apology might make me feel uncomfortable. Still, I cannot let that rule my life. Even if that is not the case, some rules of thumb are helpful. 

The best apologies are both sincere and well-timed. Better to apologize sooner rather than later. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings, take responsibility—which might mean an offer to replace something,  e.g.  a broken vase. Always use ‘I’ language. 

But what about apologies and God? 

God’s Word and Apologies

In many ways, the story of God and humanity is about God saying “you have my word” about mercy and forgiveness when we have got it wrong—whether intentionally or when we are just plainly mistaken. As the Psalmist reminds us: “a humble, contrite heart I will spurn”. 

Divine mercy at its most luminous, of constantly making allowances, is captured with Jesus crucified:

“Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).

Or the slightest spark of regret and where it leads: “Jesus, remember me” brings the promise of paradise for the thief beside Jesus (Lk: 23:43).

But what about Jesus in his ministry? 

A Syrophoenician woman challenges Jesus

As a human, Jesus was fully human. He had feelings as we do—he got angry, was afraid, wept, felt frustrated, was tired. 

Did he ‘get it wrong’ and need to apologise? In terms of intentionally going against the will of his Father, which would be sinful, of course not. We know he could never be unfaithful. 

Still, the Gospels show us how Jesus expected certain things and they didn’t happen. For instance, with the Roman centurion, we see Jesus so ‘astonished’ that he remarks: “nowhere in Israel have I found faith in Israel like this” (Matt 8:10-11). Jesus’ cure of the centurion’s servant was prompted by something he had not expected. In that sense, he got it wrong. 

Or the incident with the Syrophoenician woman, a ‘pagan’ despised by Jews. When she asks for help, Jesus seems to draw on folk language about racial superiority of Jews over Gentiles. Food meant for “children” (God’s elect) should not be “thrown to house-dogs” (Mk 7:28). 

But the woman is not deterred. “Ah yes, sir”, she replies, “but the house-dogs under the table can eat the children’s scraps” (v 28). In the verbal jousting, she outwits Jesus (but with respect). He has nowhere to go. It was perhaps not only her ‘faith’ that healed her child. It was also her gift of repartee. 

Can we seen implied in Jesus’ granting her request an admission he was, once again, mistaken, had got it wrong about her (and other Gentiles)? 

For the woman, Jesus gave her what she desperately needed. That was apology enough.
Next month: ‘You did a good job’.

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