The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Gen 50:15-21; Ps 103:1-13; Rom 14:1-12; Matt 18: 21-35
A few years ago, when I was being trained to companion people in their spiritual seeking, one of our teachers said something which has become a touchstone for me: The problem with forgiveness is that we are never asked to forgive something which is actually forgivable.
Her words cut to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Yes, there is a level of forgiveness that we need to practice every day if we want to maintain our relationships, letting go of the myriad instances of forgetfulness or emotional clumsiness or selfishness that are endemic to being human. But while those petty (and not-so-petty) offenses really do tax our patience and try our goodwill, those are not the things with which we really have to struggle. I’ve been ordained more than twenty years, and not one person has ever come into my office and said, “My brother took the last brownie from the pan, four years ago, and I still can’t stand that miserable pig.” No, Jesus is speaking of a different struggle: of how to carry on when what has been done to us is intolerable. When we have been lied to or backstabbed by someone we trusted; when we have been raped or abused or trafficked; when we are denied our dignity and our legal rights because of how we look or the language we speak or because our bodies or minds won’t do what is considered “normal.” That kind of forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness we have already received.
I don’t think we stop often enough to dwell on that. The joy and freedom of having been forgiven are at the center of our love for Jesus. One of the most striking things about the Christian faith is that its most important early leaders were people who had betrayed Jesus. Peter, the disciple who had spent three years with Jesus, walking with him, learning from him, getting rescued by him, seeking the miracles, tasting the bread — but who, on the night Jesus was arrested, swore three times, “I do not know the man.” And Paul, the devout Jew, so much in love with God that he had persecuted those he believed to be a threat to his faith, only to be knocked off his horse and called to account by God, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Both these men had come to mature faith by tasting their own failure to be the people they longed to be. They would know, always, that they had not been chosen because they were good, holy, perfect, or better than other people. They would not be tempted to stand in their own righteousness, but would stand only and ever in the life-giving stream of God’s mercy. This forgiveness would be the central chord in their lives, shaping their relationships with God, with one another, and with themselves.
Most of us, I hope, will never know that depth of abject failure, but all of us gather as a forgiven people. We come to church each Sunday to thank God for the miracle of mercy: mercy we have received because of who we are — beloved children made in the image of God — and in spite of how we have violated that image in ourselves and in one another. Love is the reason we were created; it is the ground and source and reason of our being, but none of us is perfect in love. And yet, our God brings us together, draws us to himself, gathers us around his altar, offers us his Body and Blood. In his ravaged flesh, we see the injuries we have done to one another and to this earth, but in the bread and wine, we taste the love which transcends all brokenness. We are renewed in the grace which is working in us to make us whole and free.
For those who follow Christ, our human forgiveness of one another comes from that deep place of divine forgiveness, given to us in baptism. In Jesus’ parable, we are each the servant who has been forgiven the debt of a lifetime! And so how can we withhold forgiveness from one another?
But in a human context, forgiveness is dangerous. It is dangerous because if we withhold it, we risk being trapped in our own responses of anger and vindictiveness, allowing our lives to be maimed by the worst thing that has been done to us. And it is dangerous because, too often, people who perpetrate abuse compound their sin by coercing their victims to offer forgiveness even when they have not yet altered their behavior. We have seen that dynamic over and over in the context of sexual abuse in the Roman church, with powerful prelates calling out for the perpetrators to be forgiven before anything had changed. We see it in our ongoing work with the First Nations of this land, seeking to pretend everything is fine while our brothers and sisters remain ravaged by intergenerational trauma. And we see it in our shame over the environment, taking baby steps to reform our own way of living while we are still forced to participate in the systems which are ravaging the earth.
And yet, when you look at all of Jesus’ ethical teaching, “love your enemies” is the only thing he taught that was not already part of Jewish law. The only one. Which means it must be important. What, then, did he mean?
The key issue is what it really means to love someone. Love, in the Christian sense, has nothing to do with candy and pink hearts and stuffed toys. It has less to do with giving people what they want, and more to do with giving them what they need. Love is helping those around us grow into their full stature as images of God. In the first chapter of Genesis, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Gen 1:26) The Orthodox Church teaches that there is a distinction there: every person bears the image of God, the seed of glory which confers our essential dignity and worth, but it is our work in this life to grow into God’s likeness by allowing the seed of glory to grow and blossom and flourish. Love is what manifests that likeness.
Forgiving those who have harmed you is not the same thing as remaining in their power or covering up for them. How could it be? When we pray for someone, we pray for them to be aligned with the will and love of God. When we pray for sinners, including ourselves, we pray for them to repent, change their ways, and be healed, because that’s what love looks like. And our vows to love both our neighbor and ourselves not only permit but require us to protect both by ensuring that abuse does not continue. Sacrificing the victim so as not to shame the abuser, as is so often done, only allows the abuser to damn himself by continuing in evil. But confronting the perpetrator, by oneself when safe or with the tools of the law when appropriate, gives him, her, or them a chance to admit the misconduct, renounce it, and atone. Not every perpetrator will do this, but for the ones who can, it sets them back on the path to life.
This teaching also raises a question of reciprocity in relationships. Forgiving someone seventy-seven times sounds very different in a casual relationship than it does in an intimate one. If we pass a beggar on the street and give him a dollar every day, it does us no harm, and may do him some good. But from our family and friends, we have a right to expect reciprocal concern and care — a genuine emotional give-and-take that honors each of us as human beings with gifts to give and needs to be honored. Only in that kind of emotional equality are we able to trust and grow.
That’s where forgiveness enters in. Forgiveness requires an environment that is no longer abusive or coercive. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery, but he does so from a completely changed position. No longer is he the younger brother crying out from the bottom of a pit. Instead, he is free, successful, powerful, and they are before him in their need. Joseph chooses not to punish them, but to help them, but he can only do that once he is no longer in their power and has seen their change of heart.
Ultimately, forgiveness is an act of denial: we deny those who have harmed us the ability to damage our lives forever. The theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that when Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking as a Jew living under Roman subjugation, and he was speaking to Jews living under Roman subjugation. And from his own position as an African-American man living under Jim Crow, Thurman wrote, “No external force, no matter how great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them…Anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.” Forgiveness takes the keys back into our own hands. It reclaims our minds and our emotions for our own use and our own humanity.
One of my guilty pleasures is Call the Midwife, perhaps the only television show dedicated to portraying human kindness. In one episode, a woman who is about to give birth confesses to the midwives that she is afraid to have this child. The woman was in her second marriage, having been abandoned with three children. She had chosen to remarry for the sake of the kids, but before she realized that her new husband was a treasure, she had been unfaithful for one night, and she was afraid that her baby would be black, unlike her or her husband.
When the child was born, her husband came up the stairs and sat down on the bed and took the infant in his arms, and he stared down at the perfect little face, with its perfect ebony skin, and the beautiful dark curls, and delicate curving hands with their soft pink palms, and he gazed for a long moment while the woman waited to be thrown onto the street, and finally the husband said, “I don’t know much about babies, but I reckon this is about the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. What should we name him?” And the woman stammers that he should name the child. And the man picks “We’ll name him Edward, then, because it is my family name.”
The midwives cannot understand what they have seen. Was the husband in shock? Did he not notice? Did he not understand? But this was a man who had already chosen to love a woman with her three children who were not his. There in that birthing-room, he’d been given a choice between bitterness and tenderness, between vengeance and love, and in those moments of silence and truth, he had chosen to be a person who loved.
That’s what Christian forgiveness is: it’s a choice to love. Not to be manipulated, not to be abused, not to be denied your humanity, but a choice to live into your humanity — to claim your dignity and own your agency and become the person you hope to be. Sometimes, that involves calling others to account so that they can repent of ongoing abuses. Other times, it draws a veil over what cannot be mended, but only redeemed. Let us pray, you and I, to be given grace to know the difference.