Year A Proper 19
Have you ever been reading the Bible--particularly the New Testament--and thought to yourself, “I wish Jesus had been more reasonable.”
And I suspect I might not be the only one to read and hear scripture--and we nod our head 'yes'--but we are also thinking “what did I just read?”
The readings from today bring up a double whammy of questions.
1. Do we really have to forgive that much?
2. Does God really hold our choice to forgive as being that important?
If I’m honest, I’m not as good at forgiveness as I would like to be.
It does not come natural to me.
But it has become a beautiful part of my life because, as a priest, my responsibility in a community is to point to the possibilities of reconciliation and to grant absolution on behalf of the church.
Still, forgiveness is hard.
Forgiveness is so hard, it is known in psychiatric settings and other helping professions as “the other ‘F’ word.”
But you know this, too, I think.
I suspect that there are a number of people in this room who come here with hearts heavy from recent pain and injury.
I suspect I’m not the only one here who has a few open conflicts that have grown cold.
Estrangements going back years.
Regrets going back years.
And here’s the kicker—
I’m much better at forgiving people who do something wrong to me than I am at forgiving those who hurts others I love.
I can turn my other cheek to be struck, but I will not hold someone else’s cheek out to be struck.
In those cases where I am angry and unforgiving on behalf of others, the compassion I’m supposed to have for the person who did something wrong comes into direct conflict with the sense of duty and obligation I feel like I have to care for the person who was hurt. If you’ve ever had to cut someone out of your family for the sake of others in your family, you know that dynamic. You know that tension. That discomfort of choosing not between good and evil, but choosing between the competing goods of being compassionate and yet also protecting others.
And yet, here are these passages on forgiveness. and they refuse to go away.
And I think Jesus makes this parable so hyperbolic—so exaggerated—so over-the top—because he knows how hard a thing it is to forgive.
I mean, the passage is over the top. The debt that the first servant owed could translate to as little as 10 million dollars. There is no hope at all for something like that to be repaid. None. The servant’s debt is forgiven by the king— who in mercy foregoes the satisfaction of selling the servant’s family to others in slavery, thereby leaving the servant in pain for the rest of his life. The king could here have said, “I know I’ll never get this money back, and even selling you and your family will not approach the debt you owe, but I would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you will live and die in the agony of separation and loneliness.”
Instead, forgiven. All of it.
That wouldn’t actually happen—who would write off that kind of debt?
The king even writes off the foolish attempt by the slave to protest that he would eventually repay it.
Then the unforgiving servant goes after another, who owes him the equivalent of a third of a year’s wages. Chokes him out and gets him thrown in prison. But really, what is this going to do? Even if the first servant thinks he’ll still get the money to repay the king, at this rate he’d have to shake down 450,000 of his fellow-servants to do it.
But as it turned out, the debt came back. The king called it in after hearing that the first servant did not heed his object lesson on mercy. He sends the servant to be tortured until the debt can be paid off, which we established above, means never. Everlasting torment. There are a few rare places where Jesus is so forceful with the prospect of perpetual punishment. This is one of them, as are the warnings for hypocrites, those who tie up heavy burdens they themselves are not willing to bear, and those who care not for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or those deemed a stranger among us.
This, frankly, can make the Lord’s Prayer a frightful thing—because in it we prayerfully assent to that notion that God can act unto us according to our own standard of forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses, insofar as we forgive others.”
If there is a commandment in Christianity at all, if there is something that cannot go away about how we understand our relationship to God and our neighbor, it is the persistence of forgiveness. It is that we have to hold out forgiveness to those who do wrong to us and evil to others precisely because we know that same forgiveness from God.
And I almost hate to say that because I’m also mindful of how passages on forgiveness like this have been misused in the past--how the quick jump to demand that someone forgive their abuser can put the abused person right back in the abuser’s power. Many a battered partner or exploited child has been sent back to their abuser with no serious call for the abuser to be held accountable for his or her actions.
So I think it’s important to mention a few ways in which forgiveness goes wrong.
Forgiveness does not mean that we have to minimize the evil or the hurt that we experience. The Christian commitment to truth means that we cannot lie about the hurt we experience or the pain others feel in an effort to get to forgiveness faster. If someone wrongs you, you get to be honest about that pain instead of trying to “walk it off.” Evil and pain exist, and to pretend that they do not, and to pretend that they do not matter—just for the sake of the comfort of those around you—is not a path to truth or healing. Over time, the hurt may lessen, but you do not have to pretend it didn't exist.
Of the number of ideas that are “almost Christian, but not quite,” there is the phrase “forgive and forget.” I’m sure you have heard that phrase. Forgiveness is possible, and it’s an obligation of the faith, but we are not likewise required to forget—nor, sometimes, can we forget. I kind of get why “forgive and forget” is a shorthand for our faith. Forgetting in this sense could be a shorthand for what it means to forgive. It means that we release the other person from our power; we give up our claim on them—for revenge, for retribution, for restitution. But that is release—it is forgiveness—it is not forgetfulness. It means that we do not remember in such a way that implies that we have a claim on the person.
Case in point, we gather every week to remember the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. We bring to life that last supper, at which he sat with his disciples—who would become deserters and betrayers—and yet he both died and rose breathing forgiveness. But we do not forget. We do not say that the crucifixion wasn’t that bad after all because Jesus rose from the dead, and so it can be forgotten. we instead say that evil is real, our capacity to hurt others is almost unbounded (see: Auschwitz), the torture and crucifixion was a moral catastrophe— but we follow savior who suffered the worst we could inflict, and a God whose love and redemption proved stronger than death, and a spirit who promises access to this loving power. We remember, not because the crucifixion and the betrayals and the desertions didn’t matter, but because our story as Christians is one of the power and possibilities of redemption and a love that conquers all adversity.
We can forgive, but we are not required to continue in old patterns of relationship. If you notice from the parable, the king did not keep the unforgiving servant in charge of the finances. Likewise, in winning back a fellow believer, as our gospel passage from last week put it, we do not need to continually put the same people in the breach to be abused and mis-used again and again. The relationship of the forgiven to the community may need to change.
Yes, some of the ways forgiveness gets talked about makes it harder than it has to be, but it’s still hard.
Now here's the thing. To my bones, I believe that if our reading of scripture does not lead us to healing and liberation, we have misread scripture.
And I believe that the point of the Gospel of Matthew is less about what we do, and more about who we become. But what Matthew also makes clear is that we are not in this alone. God does not leave us to our own devices only to pull the rug from under us at the end. We are invited to a life of growth, of healing, and training in holiness even when it’s borne from being broken on the wheels of living.
That brokenness is our human condition. God knows it. And God knows the difficulty of forgiving.
And I stand before you today with some trepidation because I am aware that I cannot tie heavier burdens than I myself am willing to bear, and forgiveness is a goal that no one but you and God can set the timeline to.
So, what shall I say?
MLK Jr. once said “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”
Forgiveness may be far.
But are you at a place where you can bring your pain to God?
Can you trust that God is big enough to hold your anger?
Will you let a member of this community sit with you in your sorrow?
Will you seek the help of a community that can bear what you cannot carry alone?
If you are here, living with the shame of knowing you have injured another, are you ready to make amends?
Would you let yourself be surprised by redemption?