Proper 19 Year A, 09/13/14 Contemplative High Mass
“ . . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
All this week, I’ve been asking myself, “What does Jesus mean about this seventy-seven times of forgiveness?”
There are a lot of things God may be saying about this, and the Holy One may already be nudging you about of them. I’ve been thinking about my family of origin, where we have a history at holding on to grudges. Some of us make a painful point of not talking to each other, being quick to say something critical about the other. We humans are so eager to see each other’s flaws and to cement that as our view of them instead of wondering if things could be different – instead of seeing each others’ woundedness.
Is that what forgiveness is? Seeing behind or beyond the sins? Does that mean we think what the offenders did was OK? Of course not. God is not saying we should be doormats, or that we should excuse behavior that is destructive, or pretend that evil isn’t active in our world. But I think there’s a way to tease apart the necessary recognition of wrongdoing; to distinguish it from that mental “throwing-away” of the entire person involved. We need to learn to tell the difference between, “That action was just plain wrong” and “This person should be obliterated.” Yes, if someone tears you down or abuses you or otherwise hurts you, it would be a very good idea to separate yourself from that person decisively; but we hurt ourselves if we turn that into nonstop warfare and bitterness.
I love the illustration Jesus gives us in this Gospel; it’s just so – Dramatic! Can’t you just see the guy who owes the king a few billion dollars, how terrified he is, how much he sees his life and everything he cares about, on the verge of being taken away? And then –the astounding act of the king in forgiving an astronomically large debt! How might you feel in his place, leaving that royal chamber? We just recently had a workman – whose visit was promised to cost us $125 per hour – say, “Ah, I was barely here half an hour; I’m not going to charge you anything!” We were just grinning all day! What would it be like if suddenly all your student loan debt was forgiven? Or your home loan or your credit card paid off? I think most of us would be stunned with gratitude.
But THIS guy walks down the hall, sees a fellow who owes him, depending on how you figure it, maybe a couple of months’ wages — so it’s not an insignificant amount, but not a fortune – and he throttles the other slave! He grabs him by the throat and shakes him and threatens to throw him in jail unless he pays up! What. A. Creep. As I’ve been re-reading this, I realize this man didn’t even spend a moment being happy or relieved or grateful. It’s like he didn’t get the gift at all, he didn’t even notice the enormity of the forgiveness he’d received. How sad.
But the story’s not over, and what I think I love MOST about it is the thing that comes next. The other servants are so outraged at this injustice, so righteously distressed at their friend’s plight, that they go public. They take it to the top and they tell it all to the king, and he’s so furious he reverses his forgiveness and the guy ends up in jail. It’s the community’s action that led to justice – the community that understands that being forgiven is the fuel that lights our own compassion, and the community that won’t let someone living in willful unforgiveness destroy others.
That part of the story says to me that, when we see injustice, we actually have to open our mouths and our hearts and DO something about it, just because we are a forgiven and freed people. Is this country treating immigrants in an unjust way? Arresting and imprisoning black and brown folks more than white? Are we listening to those who beat the drums of war without seeking other solutions? Do we support politicians who encourage polarization? Are we walking past the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill on our streets, accepting that as the norm? Do we tolerate churches excluding any of God’s people? Being a forgiven, healed people of God means that we take action to heal and forgive and build up others. That’s not being a doormat. That’s not some light-hearted “forgive and forget,” or some apathetic, “It is what it is.” That’s being true to the great gift we’re given, and sharing God’s grace with others – which is part of owning that grace for ourselves. Those two can’t be separated.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I strive so hard that I fall into the trap of magnifying my own brokenness, and that gets me lost. God has been showing me that I need to continue to return to the well of refreshing, healing grace. The pattern should be that we receive and accept healing; we work with joy to share that freeing grace with others; and we come back to drink ever more deeply. As Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Life may be fickle, but God’s mercy is constant.”
If we are a church full of people who truly are free to give and receive mercy, then let’s help one another practice that. Just as in our families of origin, where we still sometimes suffer from the wounds we’ve given and received, our sisters and brothers in the faith community can hurt us easily, and we know how to hurt them. You know what I mean – that eyeroll when we talk about so-and-so; that quickness to blame this or that church leader for not being perfect in every regard; that snub or impatience or faulty decision that we’ve been brooding and talking about for weeks or months — or years.
Forgive it. There was hurt, yes. And now it’s past. I truly, truly don’t have to carry that with me till the end of time. I can actually ask to be freed from that burden hanging around my neck. I can – we can – mean it in a few moments when we say, together, the Lord’s Prayer, and ask that our many trespasses, big and small, be forgiven because we have finally let go of the other person’s sin against us. We can truly share bread and wine at the Lord’s table like people who have stopped counting “who owes whom and how much.” We can come with open hands, ready to receive grace. Thanks be to God.