Sunday, September 11, 2011
Forgiveness (Sept 11, 2011)
Homily: Yr A Proper 23, Sept 11 2011, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Rom 14:1-12; Mt 18:21-35
I am remember once, back when I was in Sunday School, the Sunday School teacher, who happened to be my father, was going through the Lord’s Prayer with us. When we got to the part which says “and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” he paused, and asked to us, is that really what you want to pray for? How good are you at forgiving others when they do something wrong to you?
We all had to admit that we weren’t really very good at forgiving others. Forgiveness is hard. So do we really want God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive others? We decided that no, we wanted God to be much more forgiving towards us then we were towards others. And so we decided that something must have been lost in the translation, that the Lord’s Prayer should really say “Forgive us our sins as we should forgive those who sin against us”. And later on during the service, when we were back in church, when it came time for the Lord’s Prayer, you could hear all the twelve year olds in the church insert the word “should”.
Many years later, after I’d been subjected to the rigours of studying Greek in my theology program, I went back to look and see if anything actually had been lost in translation. And as you might expect, I discovered that the Bible translators did have it right – there is no “should” in the original Greek. And to reinforce the point, to make sure that we don’t try to wiggle out of what he is trying to teach us about forgiveness, Jesus tells us the hard, challenging parable of the unforgiving slave that we heard in today’s gospel reading.
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is complicated. In today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis we get the last episode in the story of Joseph and his brothers. You might recall that Joseph’s brothers had beaten Joseph and thrown him into a pit, and then sold him into slavery. Joseph was taken as a slave into Egypt, but eventually ended up as the Pharoah’s governor. Many years later, because of a famine, the brothers come to Egypt looking for food, and they encounter Joseph, though they don’t recognize him. Now, Joseph doesn’t forgive them right away. He torments them for a little while. He plants valuables in their bags and has them arrested for theft. And so when Joseph finally does reveal himself to his brothers, they are terrified. They are afraid that Joseph will seek revenge for the evil they had done to him. But Joseph forgives them, and provides for them and their families.
You might think that would be the end of the story. But forgiveness is complicated. In today’s reading, we have the brothers coming back to ask Joseph for forgiveness again. So what gives here? Haven’t we already been through this? It seems that the first time around, even though they were forgiven by Joseph, they did not experience forgiveness. Their guilt was still with them, their fears were still there. Rather than the experience of forgiveness, their initial experience seems to have been more like a stay of execution, or a deal with strings attached, or a favour to their father who is now dead. Sometimes, even when we are forgiven by another, or by God, we don’t believe it, we don’t experience it, and we find ourselves hanging on to the sin that our brother, or our spouse, or God has let go of.
What is forgiveness? The Hebrew word used for forgiveness has the sense of “to lift up”. To remove someone’s burden. Think of two hikers going on a long hiking trip together, call them Bill and John, each of them carrying 40 kilogram packs on their backs. That’s a lot of weight. It’s been a long day, a tough slog. And at the end of the day, when Bill and John finally reach their camping spot, they stop, and Bill walks behind John and lifts that heavy pack off his back and sets it down. Imagine how good that must feel. If you’ve ever been on a long hiking trip, you know how good that would feel. Well that’s what forgiveness feels like. The lifting up of a heavy burden that weighs us down. John at the end of the day hiking certainly knows how good that feels.
Then Bill, who’s still wearing his pack, turns to John and says, “Can you give me a hand getting my pack off?” What do you think John will do? Well of course he’s going to lift that pack right off of Bill’s back, won’t he?
Now let’s think about that a bit. Why does he do it? Why does he help Bill with his pack? Is it a transactional thing, he helps Bill because Bill helped him? No, I don’t think that’s it. Is it an ethical thing, he helps Bill because he wants to be an ethical person and he owes Bill a duty of care? No, if you were to ask him I don’t think he would say that either.
I think if you were to ask John why he lifted that burden off Bill’s back, he would say that it’s because he knows how good it is to be relieved of a heavy burden. Once you know that, once you’ve experienced it, you just get it, it’s what you do, you just live that way.
I think that forgiveness is a bit like that. Jesus’ teaching around forgiveness is not meant to be understood primarily as an ethical demand, something that you should do. Jesus teaching on forgiveness is not meant to be understood as a transactional model, an “if this then that” equation. I believe that Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is an invitation to us to enter into a new way of living, a way of living marked not by calculation but by loving. A way of living, a way of being, that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.
The slave in Jesus parable is offered the opportunity to be born into this new way of living when his debt is forgiven by the king. But he misses the opportunity. Even after his debt is gone, he’s still captive to a way of living in which debts are owed to one another, in which we keep score, in which we have to earn our way. Forgiveness is different. Forgiveness is not transactional, it is an interconnected experience of healing and relief from burdens. It is a different way of living. It is the way of living that Paul referred to in one of our readings a few weeks ago in Romans, when he said that the only debt we owe each other is to love one another. All other debts are forgiven. The slave in Jesus parable, even though the king has forgiven his debts, has not experienced forgiveness. His failure to extend to others the mercy that he has received from God shows that he is trapped, doomed to a life of relentless calculations and emotional scarcity.
Jesus is inviting us into a better way of living than that. The way of the kingdom of God. If you want to understand why the seventh line of the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, go back and look at the third line: “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”
Jesus is inviting us into the life of the kingdom. And the entry point into that life is forgiveness, it’s understanding, and feeling and experiencing and rejoicing in the mercy and compassion that God has extended to us. God wants us to know that despite our brokenness and sinfulness, despite anything we have done or not done, we are forgiven and we have been reconciled with God. He wants us to know that so badly that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, bearing the weight of all that sin and brokenness. That weight has been lifted off our shoulders and we have been healed.
When you think of God, if someone was to ask you what God was like, how would you respond?
Would it surprise you to learn that some surveys report that one of the most common images people have for God is that of a border-crossing guard? Sounds kind of transactional and rule-based, doesn’t it?
What’s your image?
Would you, like today’s psalmist, be able to say from your own experience that God is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. That as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us?
Know that you have been forgiven, and be born into the new life of the Kingdom of God, a life in which lifting burdens from others is what we do.