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One of the hardest things we have to do in life is to tell somebody they’re wrong. Our readings today are about that. You need help correcting people. The Gospel of Matthew (18,15-20) today suggests that sometimes help may be sitting right next to you.
Awhile ago, on a crowded train from Toronto to New York I had hoped to pass the long ride by napping and reading a book. But around Buffalo, two women got on and sat across from me. One of them must have been hard of hearing because at least half the car could hear her conversation.
They never stopped talking, about food, clothes, their families, their health, the different medicines they were taking. 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 after a couple of months he was back. He told her she was right. He stopped drinking. It was a hard thing being 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.” He was having a bad influence on his younger brothers and sisters, but she felt she had to keep him home. 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 I 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 all fast 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 special grace.
Sometimes we think the scriptures are about a world long gone. But this gospel isn’t about a world long gone. It’s also about those three women– and all of us– who sometimes need to say and do hard things and don’t know how to do it.
God sends help, often in the simplest ways–maybe even on a long train ride. That one, I remember, ended up in New York City 5 hours late.