In the biblical world hyssop was used for both medical and ceremonial purposes. It’s an aromatic plant, a bit like sage or mint. It was prescribed for sore throats and upset stomachs. The ancient Hebrews used it in purification rituals. That’s what the poet in Psalm 51 has in mind when he asks to be “purged with hyssop.” He has confessed; he’s hoping to be cleansed and forgiven.
The most famous advocate in our own time for the power of confession and forgiveness must be Desmond Tutu. In 1986 Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. The job came with an official residence in an area known as Bishopscourt. At the time black folks like Tutu needed special passes just to enter that part of the city. Archbishop Tutu declined to apply for such a pass. He decided he would live in the archbishop’s traditional residence with or without the approval of a racist government. Tutu did not lack for courage. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he spent his first night as a free man in that residence, hosted by the archbishop.
By that time Tutu was looking toward retirement. He had worked for decades as a pastor and an activist. He had helped bring change to one of the most oppressive situations in the world. He had earned some rest. However, in 1995 the newly elected Nelson Mandela asked Archbishop Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His purple robes graced the commission’s meetings and added solemnity to the hearing of thousands of testimonies. The commission heard from victims and offenders. They heard stories of horrific violence and deep pain. Their challenge was to help the nation find a way forward that wasn’t either forgetfulness or full prosecution. The violence had been perpetuated by so many, that it was difficult to imagine how full criminal prosecution could ever be broad enough to be more than a victor’s justice. Instead, Desmond Tutu called his country to truthfulness, what we might call ‘confession’, and with it, to forgiveness.
Our readings this morning from Psalm 51 and II Samuel 12 put these same themes before us: confession and forgiveness. None of us are responsible for national-level commissions like Archbishop Tutu and his colleagues. What we are all responsible for, though, are the network of relationships in which we move each day.
After leading the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, Desmond Tutu received many requests to speak and to give interviews. He spoke in charged situations, like Rwanda, Israel/Palestine and Ireland. When he was asked to define forgiveness Tutu would usually say something like this: forgiveness is giving up our right to revenge.
When someone harms us, they incur a debt toward us. They owe us something. We have a right to see the scales re-balanced. Or to put it the other way ‘round. When we harm someone they have a claim against us. This is how the moral universe works, Tutu would say.
This system of debt and repayment keeps chaos in check, but it doesn’t do much to promote healing. Politically, it ends up in a dogfight where the one who is picked-on wants nothing more than to get enough power to pick on the others. The one who is traumatized responds by traumatizing others. Perhaps you saw the news story this week of a man who attacked a cardiologist. Years before the cardiologist had operated on the man’s mother. She died. The man had nurtured this grudge for two decades before trying to get even.
David had been hunted and harassed by Saul. He feared for his life. He was forced into hiding. What we see in II Samuel is that when David become king himself he treated others with the same brutality he had experienced. He was jealous of a general’s spouse and had man killed. David did not do the internal work required to get out of that cycle of harm. He was trapped in a system of harm and revenge, trauma and violence.
We get trapped in his too. It means that we can’t feel right about something that has happened to us until we get even. Or, to spin it the other way ‘round again, we worry that it is impossible for us to repay someone we have harmed. I can imagine a parent, after his or her kids are grown and gone, finally realizing the harm they had inflicted on the children. How can you ever repay that kind of a debt? How can you re-balance the scales? It isn’t possible.
Judging from Psalm 51 what David seems to have realized is that not only did he harm Bathsheba and her husband, but he had also wronged the One who created both of them. The general’s life belonged to God and David had taken it. How long David lived with this sense of guilt, we do not know. Yet at some point tradition tells us it prompted the poem we read today. It begins like this: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” Here’s the third verse, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” And the sixth, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And here’s verse seven, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”
I would imagine that if David was talking to Desmond Tutu, the archbishop would want him to be a bit more specific. If Psalm 51 is David’s only confession, it’s too vague. It isn’t fully honest. Many of us know from experience that full honesty about the mistakes is cleansing. We can’t look for forgiveness unless we own the harm we’ve created.
Desmond Tutu uses an analogy to explain things. Our inner life, he says, is like a room. It has the windows closed, the curtains drawn. Fresh air is out there, cool, clean air. But inside the room there is only stagnation. Without honest confession we recycle the same old, stale air. We need to open the windows and pull back the curtains. We need to say that we are sorry. Tutu says that saying “I am sorry,” may well be the most difficult thing we ever do, but these are the words that let the fresh air in. They give us access to the healing winds of forgiveness.
When he spoke in places riven by conflict, Desmond Tutu did not convince everyone that forgiveness was the way forward. He didn’t convince everyone, but, because of his own experience, he did get a hearing. Tutu was moved by the situation in South Africa, certainly, but also by the words of Jesus on the cross. Jesus prayed that God would forgive those who persecuted him. I imagine Tutu was inspired too by the teaching prayer of Jesus, what we call The Lord’s Prayer. This prayer includes a cry for justice: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That is plea for change. Yet the prayer also includes this line: “forgive us our trespasses (or ‘debts’) as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We confess the ways we have harmed others because that is the path to divine forgiveness. We forgive those who have harmed us because God has forgiven us.