This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Everything Is Forgivable, Except Not Forgiving.

Matthew 18.21-35

            Peter approaches the question from the point of view of an offended person, a person who has been sinned against.  A person who understands her- or himself to be a good person, on the right track, doing good things.  A person for whom sin is mainly someone else’s problem.  Sin is what other people to do me.  I am the forgiver of sin, not its perpetrator.
            We know what this is like.  It’s not that we don’t sin.  But we do our best.  We are certainly not as bad as many people.  Sometimes we are even offended by the idea that someone forgives us, because it is based on the assumption that we did something wrong in the first place.
            No.  Forgiveness is something we are responsible to bestow on other people, people who do bad things.  From this point of view we ask reasonable questions, with Peter:   
            Exactly how many times am I expected to forgive someone?  He asks.  Isn’t there a point where forgiveness declines into merely letting people get away with bad behavior?  Don’t we eventually find ourselves getting taken advantage of, as people sin against us again and again, and we keep forgiving?  How will they ever learn their lesson?  How will they avoid learning that they can sin as much as they want and there will never be any consequences?  How does this not actually encourage sinning?  How do we avoid becoming abused doormats for every twisted person who wishes to do us harm?
            Should there not be limits to our forgiveness?  How about: Three strikes and you’re out; we’ll cut you some slack a few times, but after that we decide you’re incorrigible and we lower the boom.  What would happen to society if we just forgave wrongdoers all the time without requiring any kind of improvement of their behavior?  It would be chaos and anarchy!  We would be positively inviting people to do us harm!
            These questions come from the perspective of a person who is liable to be harmed.  They are about whom we need to forgive.  There is a certain superiority involved in seeing things this way.  We are the good people.  They are the bad people.  They do bad things to us.  We are the ones who have to wrestle with whether to forgive them or not.
            Jesus sees through this bias.
            He tells a parable to point out that forgiveness depends on our sense of having been forgiven ourselves.  Spiritual growth depends on our getting out of this superior, patronizing attitude, and realizing that we are primarily people who are ourselves forgiven.  It is only on the basis of our own forgiveness that we are able to forgive others.

            Jesus’ parable has to do with a king who has a slave who owes him 10,000 talents.  Now, this is an absurdly large amount of money.  Ten-thousand talents would be as much as $60,000,000.  Jesus obviously intends it to be an impossibly and ridiculously huge sum.  Not the kind of debt that you work off by skimping on lunch or saving your loose change or having a garage sale.  Most people don’t make that kind of money over the course their whole lives.  It is supposed to be an amount of money that is utterly beyond the possibility of repayment. 
            The solution to this is for the king to cut his losses and get whatever tiny return on the investment that he can, by selling the slave and his whole family, and all his possessions.  He gets to keep his life; the slave is no good to the king dead. 
            However, the slave pleads pathetically for forgiveness, saying, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.”  How he intends to do that is a mystery.  The king does not believe him... yet the king forgives him, out of pity.  He lets him go.  He cancels the debt.  He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’ll let you keep working off the debt.”  No.  Forgiveness means no more debt.  The slave is given a new lease on life.  He is out from under this curse whereby he and his family could have been sold off to much more harsh masters, even separated.  The king writes off the debt. $60M.
            I think that Jesus is saying that we are like the slave.  We have been given a spectacular gift: life itself, on a beautiful planet, with other people, with bodies, minds, souls, spirits.  We are transcendent miracles!  The gifts God gives us are worth considerably more than $60m.  They are gifts which we cannot reciprocate.  So we are in God’s eternal debt. 
            God has the option of selling us off to the highest bidder, giving us up, surrendering us, abandoning us to the whims of the market.  But he doesn’t do this.  That is not the kind of God we worship.  We worship the God of grace and forgiveness.  We worship the God of love revealed in Jesus.
            God has chosen to forgive us.  God cancels the debt altogether.  Which means we are allowed to live.  For free.  Our crushing debt has been forgiven.  We have been given new life.

            In other words, we are more like the forgiven slave.  We have received a new lease on life.  We are the recipients of a tremendous gift.
            (It has been forgiven, by the way, not because someone else came along and paid the debt off.  Jesus doesn’t say that anyone intervened and paid the debt for the slave.  No one satisfied the “honor” of the king.  No, the king redefined justice by issuing a decree of forgiveness.)
            The point being that we live, we all live, under this cosmic umbrella of forgiveness.  We exist by means of the forbearance, mercy, and patience of God.  We are only here at all because of an inexpressible gift.  We did not deserve it.  We did not earn it.  We did not work for it.  It is not due to our own merits or because we are such good and worthwhile people.  It is simply a free gift.
            This is the context of our life at the outset.  This is the original human condition: grace, forgiveness, gift.  The earth and everything and everyone in it belong exclusively to God.  We are blessed just to be here to enjoy it.  Our response to that ought to be gratitude, love, joy, and peace.   
            But the slave doesn’t respond in this way.  Having been freed of his own debt, he goes out to deal with someone who is indebted to him.  This other person owes him approximately $200.  It is a significant sum, but nowhere near the $60m he has just had lifted off his own head. 
            But instead of spreading the grace and forgiveness of the king to someone indebted to him, he has the person thrown in prison until someone else comes and pays the debt for him. 
            Maybe the slave is thinking that being more hard-nosed towards others would show his gratitude and loyalty to the king.  He could actually show that he wanted to repay what he owed; maybe he just can even imagine that he doesn’t owe it anymore. 
            How often to Christians do just this?  They respond to God’s forgiveness by being more strict, more judgmental, and more condemning towards others!  They attach conditions to their forgiveness: “I’ll forgive you, but only when you stop sinning!”  Maybe they don’t believe that God doesn’t attach any such conditions to their forgiveness.   They still think they owe God something, and they are still trying to earn God’s favor by their zeal, which is more often than not destructive and hateful.
            But by thinking this way the slave is rejecting and excluding himself from the king’s forgiveness.  Does he think he can gratify the king by wringing some of the money out of someone else?  Does he plan on going to the king and proudly saying, “You know that $60m I owe you, well here’s $200 of it”?   The debt is cancelled!  He doesn’t get that.
            Upon hearing of this, the king goes ballistic, as they say.  Jesus tells it: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

            Apparently, everything is forgivable... except not forgiving.  Jesus is saying that forgiveness may be rejected, we are able to exclude ourselves from God’s grace, we may separate ourselves from God’s infinite love, we may choose permanent condemnation.  It’s not God’s will.  It’s not God’s intention for our lives.  It’s not what God wants.  But we can still choose it.
            And the way we do it is by not forgiving.  How many of us are torturing ourselves because we can’t repay what we think we owe to God no matter how hard we try?  We think we’ll be punished if we slack off.  In reality we punish ourselves when we keep trying to earn God’s favor.
            Forgiveness is something you only receive when you give it to others.  If you hold on to the sins of others, that is itself to hold on to your own sins.  These sins become in effect a wall between you and God.  And to be separated in this way from God is to be in torment.
            The main thing about forgiveness is that it is not about that other person.  It is primarily about you.  You are the forgiven sinner, the recipient of inestimable and infinite gifts, you have had the crushing debt removed.  And in order to fully receive and keep this forgiveness you need to pass it on and forgive others, not holding on to their faults but holding only on to the grace you have received in Jesus Christ.
            Extending God’s forgiveness to others means continuing to enjoy that forgiveness, and all its benefits, ourselves.  I don’t want to dwell on the consequences of rejecting forgiveness.  Let us dwell instead on the amazing goodness we receive from God, when we pass on this forgiveness to others, in Jesus’ name.  And let us make ourselves by Jesus’ example and in his name, a community of forgiveness.


No comments: