One of the hardest things we have to do in life is to correct somebody, to tell someone they’re wrong and take steps to stop some harm being done. Our readings today are about correction. Correction is not just what people in authority or experts do; we all have to stand up for what’s right.
You need help doing this, and the Gospel of Matthew (18,15-20) we read today suggests that sometimes help may be sitting right next to you.
Awhile ago, I was coming back on a crowded train from Toronto to New York; a long ride that I hoped to pass by napping and reading a book. But around Buffalo, two women got on and sat across from me. They were older women. One of them must have been hard of hearing; she talked so loudly that people all around her could hear her conversation.
They never stopped talking, about food, clothes, their families, their health, the different medicines they were taking. But then, one woman brought up her husband. She had had trouble with him. After the kids got married, he started to drink and he got nasty when he drank. It got so bad, she said, that she told him to get out of the house and get straightened out. She wasn’t going to leave the house; he had to get out.
Well, he got mad, she said, and went to live his brother for awhile, but in a couple of months he was back. He told her she was right. He stopped drinking. It was a hard thing to be so strong with him, she said, she loved him very much, but she remembered the story in the bible where the father threw his son out of the house and after awhile he came back.
The other woman said she knew that story too and wondered where it was in the bible.
I was ready to chime in and tell them that story’s in St. Luke’s gospel, chapter 15, and actually the father didn’t throw the son our of the house. He left on his own. But something told me to keep my mouth shut.
Just then, another woman a few seats down the aisle turned to the women and said, “You must be angels sent by God. I’ve been praying for months, trying to figure out what to do with my son, and I think you’ve got the answer.”
Her son was on drugs, she said. “He’s a good kid, but he’s in the wrong crowd.” She knew that he was having a bad influence on his younger brothers and sisters, but she felt she had to leave him in the house. He just couldn’t manage on his own. Her husband was no help; he wanted to ignore the problem.
She talked to her minister in church and he told her she was being too easy on her son, but she wasn’t convinced.
Now, listening to these women, she felt God was telling her something. She had to be like that father in the gospel story that threw his son out of the house. She was going to look that story up in the bible.
Again, I was going to tell them the location of the story in St. Luke’s gospel and that the father doesn’t really throw the son out of the house, but again thought better of it. Maybe the version they had in their minds was the version God meant them to hear.
By the time the train reached Albany where two of the women got off, they were in solid agreement and were new friends. They had exchanged phone numbers and emails and promises to keep in touch, and they were thanking God for this time on the train as a time of special grace.
Sometimes we think the scriptures are about a world long gone. But read our gospel carefully. It’s not only about a world long gone. It’s also about those three women and all of us who sometimes face hard things to say and do and don’t know how to do it.
God sends help, often in the simplest ways–maybe even on a long train ride. This one ended up in New York City 5 hours late.