Tuesday of the First Week of Lent
Emptying our gunny sacks
I grew up in the South, where gunny sacks were commonly used to carry peanuts, potatoes and other foodstuffs. A gunny sack is a burlap bag that holds about 100 pounds.
A pastor I knew would talk about how couples would carry around metaphorical gunny sacks filled with all the slights, hurts or wrongs that their partner had done to them. When they had a fight, instead of dealing with the issue at hand, the aggrieved party would dump out the entire gunny sack, and rehearse every perceived wrong the other person had done.
Just imagine dragging around 100 pounds of pain, hurt, anger, disappointment, dumping it out, rehearsing everything that’s in it, and refilling it every time you get upset with someone.
If there is one point Matthew wants to emphasize in the Gospel reading for today, it’s the importance of forgiveness, both for our relationships with those around us and with God. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray: “forgive us…as we forgive.” After the prayer, he says this: “…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:9-15, NRSV
Most of us are reading this reflection at work. I’ve been in the workforce for many years. I promise you that I’ve been collecting grievances for most of that time, against co-workers, bosses, senior executives, even against students. My work gunny sack is full! There have been more times than I’d like to remember when I just dumped out that bag.
I’m not in any way suggesting that we haven’t been wronged, that the items in our gunny sacks are not real. We do experience slights, hurts, and sometimes very serious wrongs. The issue presented by today’s Gospel is not whether we have been wronged. The issue is what we will do about it. When someone hurts us or offends us, will we add that to our gunny sack? Or will we forgive them and let it go?
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that emptying our gunny sacks is of profound spiritual importance for our relationships with those around us and with God. I would like to suggest a Lenten discipline for our UST community: Every day let us remove one or more items from our gunny sacks, then look at them, remember how they got there, say a prayer for the person or people involved, and let them go. It may not be easy and, in some cases, it will take time and many prayers. If we are faithful in following this discipline, the weight we carry will get lighter and our relationships with both God and other people will be deepened.
May God bless each of us with a holy and grace-filled Lent.
Bob Shoemake directs the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of St. Thomas.