Saturday, September 13, 2014
Forgiveness (Sept 14 2014)
Homily. Yr A P23, Sept 14 2014, St. Alban
Readings: Exodus 14.19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14.1-12; Mt 18.21-35
Sometimes it’s the stories that are easiest to understand that are the most difficult. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us a story about forgiveness. There was a slave who owed his king an enormous sum, ten thousand talents, billions of dollars in today’s terms. When the king demanded payment, of course the slave could not pay, and so he was ordered to be sold along with all his family, as provided for by the law. The condemned man fell on his knees and pleaded for mercy, and out of pity, the king released him and forgave him the debt.
But then, the released man goes to a fellow slave who owes him a much smaller sum, about three month’s wages. When the second man is unable to pay, the first ignores his pleas for patience and instead throws the debtor into prison. When the king finds out about this he is angry. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave as I had mercy on you?”
The point of the story, I think, is clear. Just as each one of us has been forgiven by God, we are to forgive our brothers and sisters.
Now that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Each week we recite the Lord’s Prayer together, and we pray, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. Jesus, in this parable, is simply repeating and reinforcing that principle, albeit in dramatic fashion.
Forgiveness. Simple in theory. So very difficult in practice.
Why do we find forgiveness difficult? It’s worth thinking about that for a moment. Consider a time when you found it difficult to forgive another person. Or, if nothing comes to mind, think about occasions when you find it difficult to forgive yourself. Enter into those places for a moment.
Why do we find forgiveness difficult?
1. Forgiveness is difficult because it means letting go.
When we forgive, we have to let go of something. Something that we might want. I am reminded of a story I heard about how to catch a monkey in some parts of south-east Asia. To catch a monkey, you take a coconut, hollow it out, nail it to a tree and put a banana inside. The trick is to make the hole in the coconut just big enough so that the monkey can put his hand inside to grab the banana, but small enough so that when the monkey clasps his hand around the banana, he can’t get his hand out of the coconut. And with that the monkey is trapped. In order to escape, all the monkey has to do is let go of the banana, but he can’t. He wants the banana too much. He’s trapped.
Forgiveness may mean letting go of knowing that I was right and you were wrong. It may mean letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. It may mean letting go of our instinct for justice. It may mean letting go of a power that we have over another person. And letting go of things that we want or find valuable is hard.
2. Forgiveness is difficult because there is a natural human tendency to think that people should get what they deserve.
Call it Karma. A merit-based society. The economy of exchange. Quid pro quo. Whatever you call it, there is a natural human tendency to think that people should get what they deserve.
A few years ago, I read a story in the newspaper about a pastor in Wisconsin who received a phone call one day from the local prison. There was a young convict there who wanted to be baptized. The minister went to the prison and he met the young man. The young man’s name was Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who had confessed to brutally murdering 17 young men and boys in 1991. His depraved actions made headlines around the globe and caused the world recoil in disgust.
Dahmer turned to God and to this pastor seeking redemption and forgiveness. Was he sincere? Who knows? A few weeks later, the pastor baptized Jeffrey Dahmer and welcomed him into the family of God. Every Wednesday the two would meet and pray, sharing their faith. Six months later, Dahmer himself was brutally murdered in prison.
But that’s not the end of the story. In the years that followed, many people shunned the pastor who baptized the serial killer. They grumbled that others had been more deserving of the minister’s time and pastoral care. They were angry with him. They wanted no part of a heaven that included Jeffrey Dahmer.
There is a natural human tendency to think that we should get what we deserve. That makes forgiveness hard. But Jesus shows us that God is not like that.
Now, I need to add something here. Forgiveness does not mean that a Jeffrey Dahmer should be released from prison, or that an abuser should be allowed into a position where someone’s safety is compromised. We have laws both in our society and in our faith tradition which regulate behavior and which hold us accountable to certain values and ethical standards. This is good because laws create room for relationships. But for relationships to flourish, we also need forgiveness. Forgiveness is all about maintaining and nurturing relationships. It is inherently relational.
3. Forgiveness may be difficult because we have been wounded.
Sometimes people do things that wound us deeply. There are times when forgiveness is difficult because of the need to protect ourselves, to avoid re-opening wounds that have not yet healed. Forgiveness can make us vulnerable. Often that is a good thing. But not always. There are times when we are not yet ready to forgive. I think that it’s instructive that Jesus embeds his principle teaching on forgiveness not in a commandment but in a prayer. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We may not be ready to forgive today. But we can this day pray that God will heal our wounds and move us to a place where forgiveness becomes possible and the hold that the past has upon us can be released.
4. Forgiveness is difficult because we come at it with a legal or accounting mindset.
We often think of forgiveness in legal or accounting terms. We think in terms of a legal structure of right actions, wrong actions, judgment and punishment, and then we add in forgiveness as a kind of escape clause, a one-off suspension of the normal legal consequences. If we think in these terms, it is only natural to ask the question that Peter did, how many times must I forgive?
Peter was probably familiar with the rabbinic teaching of the time that went something like this: If your brother wrongs you and you forgive him, you are generous. If your brother wrongs you a second time and you forgive him, you are exemplary. If your brother then wrongs you a third time and you forgive him, then you are a fool!
Now Peter, knowing that Jesus was big on forgiveness, tries to impress him by increasing the number. “How about seven times? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
But Jesus’ reply is that if you’re counting, you don’t really understand forgiveness. Because forgiveness is not a transaction that can be counted. It is rather, a way of being in relationship. When we forgive each other, life becomes relational, not transactional. And to enter into the sort of relationship that Jesus is calling for means that we have to let go of certain things. We don’t get to hold grudges. We don’t seek revenge. We don’t get to feel superior to others. We don’t allow ourselves the satisfaction of thinking that the other person is wrong. We let go of all that. Instead we forgive. And we love. And we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, the sort of fools that the rabbis were talking about.
That’s what Jesus did. That’s what God is like. No one said that being in that sort of relationship is easy. But we have been called to love others the way that God has loved us. And only forgiveness makes that possible.