Every Sunday churches around the world read a set of passages assigned by the lectionary. Of those assigned to us today, the one that I want to draw our attention to is the reading from Psalm 51. We read it to each other as a call to worship this morning and echoed it in a hymn. What this poem does, perhaps more than any other in this part of the Bible, is display the value of confession. Confession is admitting, to ourselves first and then to others, that we have made a poor choice. It might be helpful to think of confession as “radical, personal honesty.” Often when we want to get serious about radical honesty we aim to tell others what we really think of them. Confession, though, turns this back on ourselves.
Confession is not the stuff of pleasant homilies. You might feel that in your body even now—a tension, an uneasiness. So let me tell you a story.
The story I want to tell you is not my own. It is a story about a Catholic priest in Mexico. We aren’t told his name, but we are told that the Mexican state where he served made it illegal to practice Catholicism. A constitutional change in 1917 would have made this possible. The change was payback for the church’s support of the previous, deeply flawed government.
The new constitution allowed individual states to take drastic measures against the church. Our priest worked in the state of Tabasco in the south, where things were particularly harsh. The celebration of Mass was banned. Priests were arrested. Some of them were killed. Others were forced to renounce their vows and their church. Our priest was forced into hiding. We pick up the story as this priest tries, feebly, to continue his ministry.
We know that at the same time his picture hangs in the office of the local police. It is there to help them identify this last remaining priest. The picture is old. In it the priest is still a young man. Yet it’s already apparent that he has things too easy. He received honor that he didn’t earn. He reveled in the automatic respect the position brought him. People kissed his gloved hands. He was allowed to take credit for work done by others. He liked the conspicuous uniform and the titles with which he was addressed. He took special joy in making public announcements. He liked the availability of books and educated conversation. He was totally self-obsessed. This priest was no saint.
His behavior did not go unnoticed. The locals called him the “whisky priest.” He was once so drunk on the job that he baptized children with the wrong names, switching Pedro for Brigitta. Since the church has been outlawed, however, he is all the underground believers have.
He is a whiskey priest, but he is all they have. So the villagers hide him. They feed him. And when they can, they bring him children to baptize and bodies to pray over. They ask him to hear their confession. They ask him to do a Mass. Sometimes, if it suits him, he obliges. He is a priest after all. He can’t be anything else. So he carries on with this ministry, charging fees for his services. He spending his money on brandy when it’s available. He meets with his mistress. The whisky priest feels no contrition.
The priest is pursued by a deeply committed police lieutenant. Unlike the priest, the lieutenant is a puritan. He wants to rid the state, not just of priests, but of alcohol too. The lieutenant is convinced that this will improve the lives of those he cares about. He is willing to kill and torture to make it happen. To get information on the priest’s activity he takes random hostages. The lieutenant aims to have the priest killed by firing squad.
The priest, quite rightly, lives in fear.
In a crucial encounter the priest visits a village where he once ministered regularly. There he finds the woman with whom he first violated his priestly vows. He also meets his daughter. She is only seven years old. Even at that age she has become mean: she is accustomed to defending herself.
The priest took up his vocation because he wanted to avoid being poor. In meeting his daughter, he realizes that this is exactly what she is doomed too experience. He is unprepared to care for her in any way. The situation is his fault. There is a consequence for his way of life. The consequence is not so much a divine intervention, which is how we often think of God’s judgment; rather, it is a natural judgment, woven into the structure of the world. The consequence for his way of life is that a child must endure the fate he wanted to avoid.
The lieutenant and his men surround the village. They ask for the priest. The villagers do not betray him. The lieutenant takes a hostage. The priest, who is there in disguise, says nothing. He lets another take his punishment.
The situation cannot last. Some months later, the whisky priest is arrested. He is not arrested for being a priest, though, but for his conspicuous drinking. In fact, none of the police realize who he is. They don’t know he is the last priest, the one for whom they have been searching. He is placed in a large common cell. It is packed full of others. Everyone shares one bucket in which they can relieve themselves.
The priest finds a spot along the cell wall. He hears an older man plaintively calling a woman’s name.
“Is she your wife,” the priest asks him.
“No, she is my daughter.”
“Perhaps they won’t allow her here.”
“She’ll never try,” says the man.
“If she loves you . . .”
“It’s the priests who’ve done it,” says the old man.
The whisky priest learns that the man’s daughter was born out of wedlock. The local priests took the child and placed her in an orphanage. They said the man wasn’t fit to be a father. The connection is too much for the priest to bear. He must say something. So he tells the prisoners that taking away the man’s daughter was wrong. He tells them that he knows this because he is himself a priest, though not a very good one. The prisoners can’t believe he would give up his life to tell them this.
The priest says that those who took the man’s child, saying they were doing God’s work, shouldn’t have done it. It might have been the ‘right’ thing according to the laws, but it wasn’t the right thing according to the deeper purpose of a priest’s calling.
In that moment, in his honesty and vulnerability, the whisky priest takes on the form of Jesus in the prison cell. In his confession and honesty, in his admission of his own failure, he displays God to the other prisoners.
The story I’ve been telling you is part of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory.
What I think Greene notices so well, and what he communicates through this character the whisky priest, is that in each of us there is a mix of motives and intents. He takes a character thought to be good (at least when he wrote the novel) and tells us how self-obsessed, deceptive and undisciplined he really is. And then he takes this character at his worst—hunted and deeply compromised—and shows us the power of God’s love and the significance of radical, personal honesty.
The priest had been the sort of man who hardly ever spend a moment in honest self-reflection. Yet this was what was what he needed: he had fathered a child he would never care for and he used the priestly office for his own gain. Only when he could no longer ignore his own mistakes was he able to glimpse a deeper and freer way of life. And only then could really fulfill his calling to represent Christ.
The Power and the Glory is a deeply Catholic story, yet I think it is more potent for Mennonites than we might first think. You see, one of the more significant distinctives of our Mennonite or Anabaptist theology is our conviction that each of us carries the call to be priests to each other. We could say that we are each called to be avatars of Jesus. Just like the priest, each of us carries the responsibility and the privilege of being the hands, the feet, the ears and the eyes of Jesus. And just as was true for the priest in Greene’s story, this can’t be limited to an hour and a bit on a Sunday. For us, it’s the melody of life.
That is easily said, but much more difficultly done. To be Christ to others is a high calling and one from which we will doubtlessly fall short. When we do, rather than run, rather than self-medicate, rather than hide behind bluster, rather than changing the channel—we would do better by simply being honest with ourselves. Rather than attempting to find something that tastes good enough, or feels good enough, or looks good enough to distract us or numb us—we would do better by simply being honest with ourselves. This, I think, is what we see in Psalm 51.
What this poem offers us is not a list of things for which we must feel guilty. Other parts of scripture help us with that, as does our inner sense and the voices of good friends. What this psalm gives us instead is two simple pictures. They are like the simple scenes of a cartoon. The story of the whisky priest illustrates the same principles.
First, in Psalm 51 we see a picture for radical, personal honesty. In this poem David admits his “transgression,” his “iniquity,” his “sin,” his “guilt.” All those words surfaced in the twelve verses we heard this morning. These words show a person no longer playing games, dodging responsibility or blaming others. When the whisky priest sees his daughter poor and suffering, the very things he wanted to avoid, he realizes these words apply to him. And he realizes they can’t be removed with a formulaic ritual. In our most candid moments of self-reflection we might see this is true about ourselves as well.
This honest self-assessment is helpful, but it must be paired with a second picture. If not, our sense of guilt or inadequacy will inevitably cut us off from others. So the second picture is important too.
The second picture we see in Psalm 51 is of someone not remaining mired in regret. The point of David’s radical, personal honesty was dwelling forever on his terrible choices. And they were terrible and deeply harmful: he had wanted a relationship with a certain woman and killed her husband to get it. In the poem that is Psalm 51 he admits the seriousness of his actions. This admission, in turn, is what opens up the possibility of forgiveness. What he is looking for, and what we can all expect to find, should we venture such honesty, is “mercy,” and “steadfast love,” “abundant mercy,” “truth,” “wisdom.” He expects to be purged and cleansed. He asks for a “clean heart” and a “right spirit.” He expects these things because he has come to know God’s never-ending desire to restore and reconcile. His poem leaves us with twin pictures of confession and hope.
What the story of the whisky priest illustrates is what psalmist believes: even when our mistakes are vivid and vividly harmful, even when they are mundane, there is a way forward. The path is radical, personal honesty. The path is confession, to ourselves, to others, to God. It may be a long path. But the path’s goal, if this psalm is any indication, is joy. This is good news for all of us who live with regrets.