Sunday, September 14, 2008

How many times?

(Matthew 18:21-35) This is the parable about forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus how many times must we forgive someone who hurts us? Seven? And... (depending on which translation you read,) the answer is either seventy-seven or seventy times seven,  which would be four hundred and ninety. Either way, the answer certainly implies a bunch of times. That goes against the grain in our society. Someone who keeps forgiving and forgiving and forgiving is usually seen as a pushover. There's an expression: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me. That puts the burden on the victim to make sure the consequences fit the offense... an eye for an eye and all that.

But today's Gospel has left a bitter taste in my mouth for other reasons. Ever since I participated in a Bible study class in my early years as a novice, I've had doubts that Jesus actually said this.( Not the part about seven times seventy, but the part about the king going back on his word and tossing the "wicked slave" into the torture chamber.

Here's why: One of our group posed the question: If the human king in this parable is the stand-in for God, and God can just take back his forgiveness in anger... where does that leave us? I'd never thought of it that way. I'd always thought it was just a story, an object lesson, like my Nana would say the boogyman would get me if I didn't behave. You don't forgive your neighbor and God will get you.

But her question brought up a lot of discussion at the time. In this particular story, the king has already forgiven the first slave his debt. Period. It's only when the other slaves turn him in for not forgiving his own debtor that the king goes berserk and has a hissy-fit... puts all the debt back and sends him to be tortured until he can pay it. This is nonsensical. If the man is in the torture chamber, he's not going to be working off his debt. It's vindictive. Is our God vindictive?

Our celebrant this morning took a different tack. He opened with the acknowledgement that some things are easy to forgive and other things really test us. As he spoke, I thought of all the people who lost friends or family members on 9/11/2001. How each anniversary brings it up all over again... the pain, the loss. Some have been able to forgive, some may never be able to.

He spoke of "the grim burden of not being able to forgive" and I thought of the expression "carry a grudge" in light of his words grim burden. Of course. We carry it. The torture chamber is one of our own making, even though in the parable the king imposes it as a penalty. Perhaps the penalty has always been in place as part of the human condition, and until we can learn the simple but maddeningly difficult lesson, we will continue to blame and accuse and expect payback. And, when it is not forthcoming we will live tortured lives. And even if there is payback... the death penalty for murder, for example... it will never be enough. An eye for an eye never replaces the first eye.

But he went on... "We should always be forgiving," he said, "because we are always in need of forgiveness." Now that's different. Way different. It's different  because it comes from the heart of who we are, no matter how wonderful we'd like to be. And it's is not a threat from a vengeful God, it's a statement of compassion and hope, instructions from a God who wants to help.

Forgive, not because we have been forgiven, but because we'll need to be forgiven. And soon. He asked just how high each of us rated forgiveness. As compared with justice in a world full with violence and evil. That's a sticky one. Both are two sides of the same coin if we are to improve the human condition globally. But our celebrant believes that forgiveness is central to all of it. I agree. 

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