By Rev’d Susan Bennett
The theme of forgiveness jumps out at us from today’s readings. Joseph’s brothers beg him for forgiveness, terrified that with the death of their father, Joseph will bring down an awful vengeance on them for having sold him into slavery all those years ago. The psalmist sings praises to our God, who has “not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” And in the Gospel from Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Good old Peter; bless his heart. How many times has he blundered and given Jesus the perfect teaching moment? Lots and lots. And so it is here. Peter thinks that forgiving an injury seven times is a gracious plenty, and Jesus is swift to disabuse him of that notion with a parable.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like an oriental potentate who catches one of his administrators embezzling. This man has embezzled ten thousand talents. Now, let’s grasp this. One talent equals fifteen years wages for a day laborer. Ten thousand talents equals 150,000 years wages. In comparison, the annual yearly tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents. Ten thousand talents is an incalculable, unpayable amount. Of course the man can’t repay it. It is, as Jesus intends it to be, completely fantastic.
The debtor pleads for mercy. And, in a completely unexpected gesture, the king shows mercy and forgives the debt. The debtor promptly goes out, accosts a man who owes him a large sum of money, and throws him in prison when he can’t pay. When the king hears about this lack of compassion, he rescinds the forgiveness and has the debtor imprisoned, to be tortured until he repays the debt. In other words, for the rest of his life.
The story focuses our attention on the miserable and miserly debtor. But the heart of it, the theological center, is the outrageous and astounding forgiveness by the king. While the king is not exactly supposed to represent God in this parable, his vast generosity does represent the uncontained mercy in the heart of God and the limitless forgiveness for all of us that dwells there.
And we who follow the Jesus way are supposed to reflect the nature of God, who is “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.” We are to limitlessly forgive those who sin against us as God has limitlessly forgiven us.
I mean, really, that’s just hard. We have all suffered injury, all been angered, all felt the bitterness of holding a grudge. Living in human community leads to injustices and offenses. Whether we mean to or not, we hurt other people. Whether they mean to or not, other people hurt us. As Katherine Schifferdecker says, “It would be great if it was just me and Jesus, but I have to deal with you and you have to deal with me, and again, it is difficult to forgive.”
So where do we go from here? It helps to come to terms with what forgiveness is and what forgiveness is not. Let’s start with what it is not.
First of all, forgiveness is not a license for continued injustice, abuse, or oppression. Limitless forgiveness is not about a sentimental tolerance for hurtful behaviors. As Christians, we are sometimes guilty of Christian Doormat Syndrome, where we avoid confronting offenders whose behaviors damage the community. We let them get away with too much too often. Domestic abuse is not to be overlooked. The evil fruit of racial prejudice is not to be allowed. Breaches of trust cannot go unhealed. An unrepentant sinner or an unjust system cannot be allowed to continue to harm others.
In fact, the first part of this chapter in Matthew, chapter 18, concerns how to confront erring church members, in truth and in love. Love makes us more human, and to be more human, we must care so much for each other that we strive not so much to be nice, but to be honest. To love is to support and encourage, but not necessarily to approve. If we love one another, we will help one another fight against our greed, our selfishness, and our indifference. Matthew teaches us how to challenge these members with their sinful behavior.
Which brings us to the second thing that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not a lack of consequences. Families of murder victims may forgive the murderers, but those murderers still go to jail. Accountability is at the heart of healthy relationships, between friends, in families, in churches, and in society as a whole. In Matthew, the ultimate consequence for an unrepentant sinner is to be excluded from the fellowship of the church.
Third, forgiveness is not reconciliation. I think this is where a lot of us get stuck. It made a huge difference to me when I was taught the distinction between the two. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on a request by the offender to be forgiven. Forgiveness is based on our relationship with God, not our relationship with our offender. It recognizes that God, not me, is the final judge in the situation.
Reconciliation, though, has the goal of restoring the broken relationship. It’s a process that requires true repentance on the part of the offender, repentance that must be demonstrated by changed attitudes and healing actions. Forgiveness can happen without reconciliation. A person who suffered abuse as a child can forgive their abuser, but they need not heal that relationship to forgive them. Reconciliation requires that the people involved come to share the same values, and from those shared values, they can then rebuild trust. If a married serial adulterer can’t agree that fidelity is a value that they as spouses can share, then their relationship can’t be healed. There can be forgiveness, but not reconciliation.
So, if forgiveness is not tolerance, or lack of consequences, or reconciliation, what is it?
Forgiveness is a decision, a decision about the past. It’s a decision to accept that you cannot change the past and to accept that the past doesn’t have to hold you prisoner. It doesn’t depend on an apology. It doesn’t depend on restitution. It doesn’t depend on revenge or retribution. It depends on our decision to release the past and enter into an open future. Forgiveness is freedom – freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us.
Christian forgiveness, like Christian love, is primarily an action, not a necessarily a feeling. We have no control over our feelings, we feel what we feel. Anger, fear, affection, amusement – these rise up unbidden. We can, however, control the decisions and actions that are prompted by those feelings.
It seems as if in these times of pandemic, we don’t have much of an arena for decisions or actions. But now more than ever, followers of Jesus must live into the Gospel call, and forgiveness is at the core of our discipleship. In these times of pleas for racial equity and justice, in these times of mourning for those lost to Covid-19, in these times of increasingly obvious economic injustice, we can still choose actions that show that we live to the Lord.
We can forgive those we see as the perpetrators of these injustices, and we can act in love to disempower them. We can forgive white supremacists, and we can act in love to disarm them. We can forgive those who hoard wealth, and we can act in love to tax them so that they pay their fair share for the flourishing of all our citizens.
An essential part of being able to choose forgiveness is to understand that we always need forgiveness ourselves. In his question to Jesus, Peter sees himself in the role of the sinned against; Jesus knows how often Peter will fill the role of the sinner. When Joseph’s brothers weep and beg for mercy, Joseph replies, “Have no fear. Am I in the place of God?’ Am I in the place of God?
When we just know we are right; when we feel indignation burn in our throats; when we judge another’s actions to be sin – we should ask ourselves this question. Am I in the place of God? In other words, who am I to judge? Humility needs to be added in big doses. I may be a prophet, or I may be a fool. Either way, God knows it.
Forgiveness is hard. Sometimes, the only way I can see for me to even begin to want to forgive is to pray, long and hard, and to have faith that Jesus, who forgave his executioners from the cross, will give me the will to choose forgiveness and love. And when I fail – because sometimes we fail – I will rely on the unfathomable mercy and forgiveness of the Holy One to lift me up and help me try again.
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