Provoking Forgiveness

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September 17, 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Oh my, this parable!

Peter—ever our stand-in in the biblical story -- asks for just a little bit of clarity and direction around the practice of forgiveness.  A straightforward enough question, even posed with a helpful suggestion of a possible guideline embedded: “What is the limit on forgiveness required of a member of the community—shall we fix it at seven??” asks the dutiful Peter.

Jesus, ever the brilliant rabbi and master teacher responds, not with a number (seventy-seven times is Jesus’ way of saying there is no limit), but with a parable. As we are about to embark on a multiple week streak of Matthean parables, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that the genre of the parable is not a form of analogy or a morality tale. It is not a guideline or a formula for behavior. It is more like a puzzle. It is meant to invite us into a deeper engagement with the teaching, by turning out expectations on their heads.

Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt says in her recent book about the parables of Jesus, that if you hear a parable and think, “Oh, isn’t that a nice, sweet, concise story that makes everything perfectly clear”—then you’re probably not reading it the way Jesus intended it. Parables are meant to provoke us.

And provoke us this parable does. Before diving into my response to it this morning, I first want to say this explicitly:  This parable addresses a subject that runs so deep and is so costly to so many of us in so many different ways, that to say anything about it, runs the risk of causing harm. The subject about which Peter inquires, forgiveness, is one in which each and every one of us has a stake, whether we are aware of it or not.

The point of this parable, and indeed any reflection on it, is not to shut off the question of forgiveness with an answer, but rather to provoke a deeper engagement in each of our lives about the ways in which God’s love, grace, and mercy are flowing through the lives of ourselves, those we love, and yes, those we hate. Jesus invites us to wrestle with the difficult work of reconciliation and to become more aware of the part that we play in God’s work.

It has been my consistent experience over my years in ministry, and indeed when I myself sat in the pews, that many members of our congregations are, like Peter, are wrestling with the parameters of forgiveness required of them as members of the church. And when texts about forgiveness come up in the lectionary, they can provoke painful questions. So I want to invite, in fact, urge you, if you would like help working through a particularly thorny issue with which you are struggling, I – and I know my clergy colleagues, Dominic and Judy,  --would be very happy to sit down and have a longer conversation with you about the constellation of spiritual challenges that arise when we consider the implications of that phrase we utter every time we gather for the sacred meal: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us”

So, acknowledging all of that, let us dive into the wrestling ring with this parable!

First of all, you know you are hearing a parable when you hear a setup like the one in this narrative.  It goes by quickly in our modern hearing, but a story that begins with a slave-owing a king ten thousand talents… is a clue that you are in the neighborhood of hyperbole—or parable.  Just to clarify, the amount that the first slave owes, ten thousand talents, is more than a person could possibly earn in an entire lifetime.  By contrast, the amount that the second slave owed to the first, one hundred denarii, is the equivalent of roughly three months’ wages. So we are meant to get the point that the first slave was forgiven a debt of unthinkable magnitude. And in the wake of that windfall of grace, he turned right around and laid hands on a fellow slave, and had him thrown in debtor’s prison for a couple hundred bucks.

Take this parable home with you today and re-read it. You do not need a degree in theology or biblical studies in order for God to provoke you through this parable. Where are you in the story? Where does it challenge you? What are your “Yeah, buts…”? Where do you need healing? To forgive or be forgiven?

For your consideration, here are a few practical steps offered by Christian theologian, L.Gregory Jones, from his book co-written with a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, Celestin Musekura. In it, he likens the discipline of forgiveness to a fluid dance, like a waltz. He proposes that in order to dance gracefully, we must first learn a few steps, mechanically and awkwardly, but that is the beginning of being able to fly around the dance floor with God. The author identifies six steps, of which I will share two at some length and touch on a few of the others:

Step 1: We become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen. This is not easy, not the least because we often cannot even agree about what it is that happened. It’s hard enough with two people, and becomes immeasurably more complicated when multiple parties are involved. This is why we need not only honesty but also patience, the virtue that the ancient theologian Tertullian called “the mother of mercy.” When we try to be patient and truthful, we can discern more clearly what is going on.

Wherever we are, we must begin now. But we cannot assume that every conflict will be resolved by sundown. While we must be quick to take this first step, the response we hope for requires patience. Forgiveness takes time.

Step 2: We acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness and a desire to overcome them. Whether these emotions are our own or belong to others who are mad at us, it does no good to deny them. Besides, anger can be a sign of life. We should be more troubled by those whose passion is hidden or, worse, extinguished. As we noted when looking at the pitfall of costly despair, bottling up our feelings can be extremely dangerous for ourselves and those around us. We learn to overcome bitterness as we begin to live differently through practices that transform hatred into love.

Several years ago a woman enrolled in my course on forgiveness while she was in the midst of a trial as the victim of a rapist. I suggested that she might want to wait to take the course, as it would undoubtedly open wounds for her, but she wanted to stay. After the session on loving enemies, she came to my office. “You know, that sounds good, and I know Jesus said it,” she told me, “but I want the guy to rot in hell.” I told her I understood that. “You talked about people praying,” she said. “What did you mean?”

I answered by asking, “Would you be willing to let me pray for him for you?” There was a long silence. Then she said, “Well, I suppose.”

A couple of months went by. She stopped me one day on campus and asked, “Are you praying for him?” I said yes. She said, “Okay.”

Six more months went by, and she came to my office. She asked, “Are you still praying?” I said yes and she said, “Yes, I am too.” I asked what she was praying, and she said, “I don’t know. I just call out his name.”

Two years later she wrote me a letter and said that she still could only call out his name. “But,” she added, “I hope you are still praying for him.” Her anger and bitterness are still real, and she’s not ignoring that. As a Christian, though, she wants to overcome them and has entered into a practice of prayer in community. It may take a very long time, but we believe that the power of God is what draws us into and sustains this dance. If Christ is risen, death is defeated. Even our deepest hatred can be transformed into love.

Step 3: We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God. Sometimes our partner in the dance of forgiveness is a total stranger; at other times, he or she is intimately connected to us, someone from whom we have been estranged. Either way, seeing as children of God the ones on whom our bitterness focuses challenges our tendency to perceive them simply as enemies, rivals or threats. Now they are potential friends in God.

Sister Helen Prejean concludes her powerful book “Dead Man Walking” by recounting a conversation she had with Lloyd LeBlanc, a man whose son was brutally murdered. LeBlanc, a practicing Catholic, told Sister Helen that when he arrived in the cane field with sheriffs’ deputies to identify his son, he knelt by his boy and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. “Whoever did this, I forgive them,” he said. LeBlanc did not deny that he struggled (and continues to struggle) with his emotions, mourning all that he lost when his son’s life was cut short by an act of violence. But he knew from that day when he knelt by his son’s body that his son’s murderer was also made in the image of God.

LeBlanc’s capacity to forgive did not come from spontaneous inspiration. We learn from Prejean that LeBlanc has for years gone to a small chapel every Friday morning to pray. He prays for “everyone, especially for the poor and suffering” -- especially, we might say, for those in whom it is most difficult to see God’s image. Prayer is not something LeBlanc decided to do in a time of crisis. The habits of prayer were, rather, already so much a part of his life before his son’s murder that I suspect those who know him well would have been surprised if he had not responded by praying the Lord’s Prayer. Prejean indicates that LeBlanc regularly prayed for the mother of his son’s killer, and even went to comfort her before she died. Where she might have been left to face death alone, the dance of forgiveness made it possible for her to be accompanied by the most unlikely of friends.

Step 4: We recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past and take the step of repentance. This does not mean ignoring the difference between victims and victimizers. People need to be held accountable for their actions. Wrongdoers need to repent and ask for forgiveness, even as those who have been victimized struggle to forgive. Even so, in all but the most extreme cases, we also need to recognize and resist our temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves. All too often we see the speck in other people’s eyes while not noticing the log in our own (Matthew 7:1-5). We tend to ignore our own wrongdoing.

Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it this way:  “To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at a settled spiritual maturity that entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness, is in fact to leave others without the therapy that they need for their souls,” “It is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery -- while reinforcing your own slavery.” Taking the step of repentance ourselves, we create space for the healing God wants to give, for the healing that each of us needs.

Step 6: We confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation. Sometimes a situation is so painful that reconciliation may seem impossible. At such times, prayer and struggle may be the only imaginable options. However, continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal -- even if this is “hoping against hope” for reconciliation in this life -- is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new."

If we don’t remember that the orientation of forgiveness is actually in the healing of our future, not our past, then we have missed the point. Take this parable home with you. And let it provoke you. Share a conversation with someone you love and trust, and ask one another: Who has forgiven you?  Who has held a grudge or iced you out? For what in your life have you asked forgiveness of God? Do you feel you have been forgiven? Whom have you forgiven? Whom are younotforgiving…yet? And of course for so many of us, the person we most stubbornly refuse to forgive is ourselves – refusing to acknowledge the forgiveness, grace and mercy offered to us by God. And this does not delight God’s heart.

This parable points us to the same core insight as the prayer that we pray every time we gather for the sacred meal: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  Jesus is telling us there is a relationship between God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of one another.

This is tough work, but we are absolutely called to it. Each and every one of us.  For God calls us not to a life of drudgery and hard labor, but to the dance.

Ultimately Jesus came so that we might know true life, and know it abundantly.  Reconciliation with difficult people is ultimately God’s work. And there are some situations that will not be fully reconciled in our lifetimes – whether because the difficulty is too high, or the person from whom we are estranged is no longer living. In this case is it our job to practice a sort of forgiveness that keeps us whole and safe, and makes it so that whatever God’s obstacles to bringing about reconciliation, we’re not one of them. The Good news of this parable is that God always desires true and deep healing for us. God asks the hard things of us, because God wants us to be free.

Let this parable provoke you. And ask God for the strength and grace to allow God to heal you, to heal us, and to set us free.