September 14, 2014
In the wake of our recent observance of the anniversary of September 11, it is sobering to ponder what Jesus would preach if he were presented with today’s texts. It’s so obvious that in our Scriptures for today that we are being called to address is the subject of forgiveness, and yet it is so hard to proclaim when people are still hurting. Sometimes there are things we can’t forget and just don’t want to forgive. And what’s more than that, we don’t want God to forgive them either. We want evil-doers to be held accountable.
In our Gospel reading, Peter is trying to figure out how Jesus’ puzzling theology of grace makes sense in his own, very concrete life. He’s specifically interested in what to do if someone sins against him over and over. “Should I forgive him seven times?” Peter asks, thinking he was being generous with that number. Seven is the Biblical number for completion. Seven days to create the world, seven seals on the Book of Life. Seven symbolizes totality. By now both Peter and I should know better than to expect that when we imagine what Jesus might say or do, we are going to be wrong as often as we are right. This is one of those times.
Jesus says, “Not just seven times. No! SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN!” Jesus gives this huge, exaggerated, unimaginable number. It isn’t a mathematical formula. It’s the totality of enough forgiveness (7) multiplied beyond understanding. Forgive the people who hurt us so often that we can’t even count that high.
Now to be clear, there is a difference between excusing and forgiving a sin. I want to make sure that you hear me say that, especially in a week where troubling videos of domestic violence have been seen over and over. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean forgetting. Sometimes remembering coupled with forgiveness is even more powerful. What forgiveness requires is letting go of the desire to punish someone else for what they’ve done. It doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t hurt—or worse yet, that it never happened. It doesn’t mean not holding the perpetrator accountable. True forgiveness includes acknowledging the suffering another has caused us, while leaving the penalty for that wrongdoing in God’s hands. Or as Anne Lamott so brilliantly puts it: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a better past.”
I’m humble enough to acknowledge that I have no idea what Jesus would say about the anniversary of September 11 or to victims of abuse, but I can tell you that when he was asked about forgiveness in his own, this is the outrageous story he shared:
Let’s say a very rich guy finds out one of his employees has been embezzling from the company. The amount Jesus poses–10,000 talents–is so astronomical as to be beyond conceiving. Just to give you a sense of it, when the Romans conquered the people of Israel, they demanded a tax of 10,000 talents, and Caesar later reduced the fee because he thought it was unrealistic. So basically, Jesus is saying that this guy stole the equivalent of the national debt, and now he’s being called to account for it.
Obviously, he could not just go over to the ATM and make everything OK. The employer demands the customary penalty for debt: that this man and his whole family be sold as slaves, his house be foreclosed, his bank accounts liquidated, and all the proceeds go toward repaying the debt. In the face of all that, the servant’s plea seems almost laughable: “Just give me a little time and I’ll pay it back.” Right.
But if that sounds crazy, then what do we make of the employer’s response? “You know what? Instead of that, how about I just let you go free? AND I’m going to just go ahead and write off all that you owe me as a business loss on my taxes. You don’t have to pay me back a single cent.”
Can you get your head around that? Can you imagine someone cancelling all your debt? Your mortgage/ rent payments, your car payments, your credit card bills, your student loans, EVERYTHING?? Clean slate. Just don’t bother to pay it back, the creditor says.
How would it change your life if that happened? Can you imagine? What would you do first? Call your mom? Throw a block party? Go on a shopping spree? Buy a small country? What? It’s hard to conceive of the liberation that servant must have felt in that moment. But forgiveness is disorienting too. It’s not what we’ve come to expect from other people or the world at large. That is why what happens next in Jesus’ story is plausible.
As the newly liberated clerk is leaving the office, he runs into a guy who borrowed about $20 from him a few months ago. He grabs him by the lapels and pushes him up against a wall, saying, “Pay me back what you owe me, or I’ll have you arrested and thrown in jail!” Isn’t that just too much? After the astounding mercy that has been shown to him, he has the audacity to fall back into the old system of indebtedness being a punishable crime. No one else can believe it either. Immediately someone runs to the boss to tell him what’s going on. And then it’s time for a serious reckoning.
Can you picture the guy’s face as he’s dragged in front of his boss for the second time that day? The combination of guilt and humiliation and fear and—let’s hope—embarrassment? I cannot imagine he could even raise his head enough to look the boss in the eye. But I am sure he hears the thundering voice asking, “How DARE you? How could you possibly treat someone this way after what I did for you? No mercy for you this time.” And he hands the guy over to the torturers.
Jesus concludes the story with, “So, yeah, that’s kind of what the kingdom of God is like. Forgive each other, and make sure that you really mean it.”
I think I can see the look Peter’s face at that moment. It was probably the same look as the one on the faces of Joseph’s brothers when they realized that the mighty ruler in front of them was the same guy they threw into a well, and then sold into slavery and then told their dad had been killed by a wild beast. It’s that “Oops look” about 70 x 7.
It’s the look that comes across our faces when we really hear what Paul writes to the Roman Christians: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Can you imagine standing before the judgment seat of God, acknowledging that we’ve been pardoned for all that we have done or left undone, but still had the gall to withhold forgiveness from people who committed offenses against us? What makes it worse—at least for me—is that sometimes I have refused to even try to forgive, allowing my anger and resentment to curdle inside me for years.
My guess is that some of you can also recall a time when you judged or despised someone. Maybe someone you knew. Maybe a group of people, a group you thought of as “them.” Maybe you have turned on those who have wounded you with all the ferocity God has not unleashed on you. The truth is inescapable. In all of our lives, there is a flash of recognition of ourselves as that embezzling employee who turned on the guy who owed the tiniest fraction of what he had just been forgiven.
So now we’ve hit bottom.
The first step toward healing, as anyone from a recovery program like AA could tell us, is acknowledging that—on our own—we are powerless to make things better. We are unable to control our own lives; we require a stronger external force to help us. No matter how hard we try, we are never going to be able to forgive with the generosity and compassion that God inevitably showers on all people. We are not able to wait as patiently, to pray as fervently, to love as deeply. We are among those for whom Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We are among those Jesus refused to strike out against when he was being humiliated and mocked and tortured and executed. We are not capable of exuding the kind of grace and acceptance that Jesus always showed to everyone. Including us. Including you. Including me. We cannot love like that.
But here is the Good News: God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God sees us and knows us, including our hesitance to forgive, and our tendency to judge one another. And God forgives us our trespasses, even while we are still unable to forgive ourselves or others.
We can take comfort in the fact that when he is hanging on the cross, Jesus prays to God the Father, “Father forgive them.” That shows us that when we are in deep pain and cannot offer forgiveness ourselves, we can raise up those who have offended us to God, and ask God to forgive them. We can ask God to deal with the situation. We can stop holding onto our right to hit back, and offer even that to God.
Here is the Good News: God so loves the world, the broken, messy world, that Jesus came to be among us, with us. When we trust in God’s mercy, God’s capacity and desire to forgive all that is misshapen and broken in our relationships, we will find our burdens lighter, even while we are still bearing them. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. Saved from evil, saved from resentment, saved from our refusal or inability to extend mercy and forgiveness. Saved because it is God’s nature to heal, forgive, and make new all that is dead or dying. The Good News is that “whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.” And God is merciful. Thanks be to GOD!