In her beautiful book The Pearl Is In The Oyster Marilyn Cram Donahue tells the story of a neighbour who had ritualised her resentment. Whenever a visitor came for a cup of tea or coffee, she would pour the drinks and then reach for an old and battered plastic sugar bowl. Then, apologetically, she would tell her story of the beautiful bone china bowl that her mother had owned, but that her sister had taken when her mother died and they divided up her possessions. She had never forgiven her sister, and had turned her bitterness into a daily routine that kept it fresh and growing.
This is always the result when we allow our lives to be defined by our wounds, and yet the tendency to do so seems to be a pretty universal human trait. Which is why the words of Jesus in this weeks Gospel are so hard for us to hear – forgiveness can only be received when it is coupled with the giving of it. Oh, we’ve made sure that we can hear these words – even preach them – without too much discomfort, though, by making the whole thing so very spiritual that any practical application has become unnecessary. Unfortunately, if we are to take the teachings of Jesus seriously – and observe the way he himself lived them out – such spiritualising of forgiveness becomes untenable. A spiritualised forgiveness requires nothing of us. It makes the cross little more than a good thought or a forced kindness, and removes the hard, cold honesty of seeing our true brokenness and destructiveness.
In the life and words of Jesus forgiveness goes to the very heart of God’s reign. If we miss this, we miss the whole point, and if we minimise it, we render the Gospel impotent. But, the strange thing is that we’ve turned forgiveness into something hard, something objectionable, something we would avoid at all costs – and in the process we have chosen death over life.
There are three significant pieces of background information that must be considered if we are to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate in his reply to Peter’s question about the limits on forgiveness. The first, as Stanley Hauerwas explains in his excellent commentary on Matthew, is the link with the feast of the Jubilee. The numbers seven, seven times seven, or seventy-seven all tend to echo each other in Scripture, and when it comes to the thoughts of Jesus in this conversation, the echo of the feast of Jubilee is clearly present (See Leviticus 25:8). At the Jubilee, of course, forgiveness was at the heart of the celebration – the return of land to the original owners, the freeing of slaves, and the writing off of debts.
The second piece of background information is from earlier in Jesus’ ministry – the Sermon on the Mount – when he taught his disciples to pray “forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12 NLT). The connection between receiving and giving forgiveness is strongly emphasised here, and forgiveness is built into the very structure of discipleship in Jesus’ thinking. If we are to follow Christ, the call to forgive is unavoidable, and it forces us to recognise the brokenness and sinfulness in ourselves which makes us just as needy for forgiveness as those to whom we may give it.
The final piece of the puzzle that must be put in place is the very strong connection between the idea of “sins” and the idea of “debts”. The word in the Greek for “sins” in the Lord’s Prayer also means “debts” and the two ideas are closely related in the Scriptures. Jesus makes this connection clearly in his parable of the unforgiving man basing the whole story on the man’s financial debt to his king compared with the debt owed to him by a fellow citizen. While the Sermon on the Mount does a good job of rooting the law in our hearts, this does not mean that action becomes unimportant for Jesus. On the contrary, the whole idea of forgiveness – whether of sin or debt – is about participating in God’s new order. It is about stepping out of the scale-balancing power-games of society, and embracing the injustice of God’s system of grace. It is about making relationships, reconciliation and community the first priority and turning our backs on the kind of justice which requires “payback” or tit-for-tat. It is about choosing to do life and its primary systems of money, power and desire differently.
When we hold these three background elements together, we discover that there is no spiritualising of forgiveness for Jesus. Forgiveness is about getting our hearts right with one another and also about living the Jubilee kind of life – writing off all kinds of debts, financial and otherwise. Without this kind of forgiveness, the new community which Jesus seeks to establish, and which we explored last week, is impossible. If scales must be balanced, and if debts must always be repaid, if sinners cannot be reconciled until they have been adequately punished, then there is no hope for community, and no hope for any of us to find God. It is only when we learn the hard lesson of releasing our need for “justice” (by which we mean “payback”) that community can hope to survive. It is only when we are willing to make grace the highest priority that we can hope to sustain a human expression of God’s reign of grace and true restorative justice.
The practical implications of this parable for us in the 21st Century are sweeping and deeply disturbing – which may be why we have tried to sidestep them in some very significant ways. To begin with, Jesus makes it clear that reconciliation must always be on the table for his followers. The general application of the law was that forgiveness was given three times, but not on the fourth. Peter must have thought he was doing far better by doubling this and adding one to get to seven times. Jesus’ response, multiplies the number so much as to make it irrelevant – there is no limit to forgiveness for Jesus. And these are not just words for him. They are manifest in his own life when from the cross he willingly speaks forgiveness over his own executioners.
The second challenge we must face is to our concept of justice. We have tended for far too long to view justice in punitive, retributionary ways. For Jesus such justice is anathema. Justice, from Jesus’ perspective, is Jubilee justice – restorative, compassionate and communal. For Jesus justice is about redistribution of wealth, not punishing the poor. For Jesus justice is about freeing the enslaved, not restricting them even further. For Jesus justice is about keeping society equitable and humane, not about working the system to keep the wealthy in power and the poor under control.
Finally, for Jesus, forgiveness is as practical as canceling a debt. It is, to our horror, about letting the other person “off the hook”. It is refusing to allow our hurt, our offense or our sense of what is “right” to lead us to dehumanise or dismiss another person or ourselves. It is a call to let go of our ideas of “deservedness”, “worth” or the “earning” of forgiveness, and taking the initiative to forgive those who haven’t asked for it. Only this is the kind of peace-making, justice-seeking and community-building that is characteristic of God’s reign.
So, how does this translate into our world today? Two particular realities come to mind immediately. The first has to do with Third World debt – a very practical way that the forgiveness Jesus speaks of in this parable can be practiced by those in wealthy and powerful countries who claim to follow him. I don’t need to spell out the way that poorer countries have become economically enslaved to wealthier ones through history. Nor do I have to remind you, I’m sure, that the aid that is given to those countries is usually insufficient to service the debts which they have (often through manipulation by others) incurred. Nor do I have to argue that our current economic system of perpetual growth is deeply flawed and cracking under the strain. In the light of these realities, and as counter-intuitive as it may sound, forgiving Third World debt may just be the most practical and healing thing we can do for our world right now. I realise that there are complex issues that must be navigated here, and this simplistic summary leaves much unsaid. But, nevertheless, the principle remains.
The second reality which I can’t help but address is the significance of the fact that the Lectionary – planned so many years ago – has placed Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness on the day of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. I must confess that I am not an American. I cannot begin to understand how the attacks changed the psyche of the people of the United States. For this reason I hesitate to even speak into this reality. So let me say simply this: I find it deeply disturbing that on a Christian web site offering videos for use in services of worship there should be a video showing President Obama informing the world of the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the final word on the video would be that this is “closure”. I can’t help but wonder whether the three wars that have resulted, the deaths and pain and ongoing fear and insecurity that the United States have experienced, have been worth it all. I can’t help but question why I can’t find a single video for this Sunday in which the word “forgive” is featured (it may be there, but after hours of searching, I couldn’t find one). I can’t stop thinking that perhaps Jesus words about forgiveness are most relevant to this situation than to any other in our world at the moment – and I can’t stop wondering what life might be found were we all – Americans and non-Americans – to embrace the principle of forgiveness even in this most difficult of realities.
Forgiveness, it seems, is a non-negotiable for Jesus. This makes sense when we begin to learn that retributive justice, balancing scales and withholding forgiveness from all but those who have “earned” it or who “deserve” it, keeps us in deep and abiding bondage to our fear, our conflicts and our insecurities. We can only work this way if we delude ourselves about our own need for forgiveness. But, when we do the tough work of recognising that we are all debtors, we can begin the painful, but liberating journey into both receiving and giving forgiveness.
Eugene Peterson, in his version of John 20:23 in The Message drives this point home:
“If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” (Emphasis mine).
This may not be what we want to hear today, but the truth is, if we stubbornly choose to hang on to our wounds, if we insist on using an old beat-up sugar bowl, instead of just buying a new one and reclaiming the relationship, then evil has won, and we are are truly defeated.
The Good News, though, is that when it’s God’s reign we’re talking about, there is always hope that we may, somehow, find the courage and the strength within us to embrace Jesus words, to take up the cross, and to live differently. And when we do this – each of us a little more each day – the power of violence, of retribution, of inequity, and of division, is truly broken. Yes, there is an injustice to forgiveness. But it’s a glorious and healing one, isn’t it?