Our lectionary today starts us off with a beautiful story from the Hebrew Scriptures, demonstrating for us Forgiveness of Things That Seem Unforgivable. His brothers beat him up, strip him, throw him in a pit, sell him into slavery, and lie to their father about the whole sordid thing. And Joseph is, remarkably, able to see God’s hand at work in all this mess.
The crucifixion itself provides us the ultimate illustration of this kind of forgiveness, as Jesus hanging on the cross prays, “Father, forgive them.”
Closer to our own experience, in our own time, we see remarkable stories like this in the media from time to time - about Palestinian and Israeli families setting aside their differences to work together for peace; about parents sitting down with the killers of their children…
One story in particular held my attention this week - Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, of the Anglican Church in Iran, fled that country after the revolution of 1979. That fall an attempt was made to assassinate him and his wife. And the following spring, on the way home from teaching at the university his son’s car was ambushed, he was shot, and killed.
The bishop, at his son’s funeral, prayed -
We remember not only our son but also his murderers;
Not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow…
But because through their crime we now follow thy footsteps
more closely in the way of sacrifice.
The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness
and possessiveness in us...
It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God's
love as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection;
Love which makes us free from hate towards our persecutors...
Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.
Our son's blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls; So when his murderers stand before thee on the day of judgment
Remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives.
In today’s gospel Jesus gives us such a story - the kingdom of heaven is like a king who forgave a servant a massive, seemingly unforgivable debt. For perspective, given that a denarius was a regular daily wage, and a talent was several thousand denarii… His debt of 10,000 talents would be like a minimum wage worker in Seattle owing 4.4 *billion* dollars! (This man will never be able to pay that.)
Like all those stories of forgiveness, this warms our heart, it makes us happy - we’re grateful for the example people like this king set for us, and pray that we could have such fortitude ourselves when it comes to doing the hard work of forgiveness in our own lives and relationships.
Jesus, of course - being the pot-stirrer that he is - doesn’t leave it there. It’s not enough for us to just be left feeling warm and fuzzy without facing some of the harsher realities about the work of forgiveness.
The servant in the parable doesn’t get it, he doesn’t “pay it forward” - he is not willing to forgive another (a relatively trifling amount of money) as he has just been forgiven. He does not recognize that the way has just been opened for him to live in a world shaped by grace. Even this part of the story is not so unusual, not so difficult to grasp - people who don’t have a lot of cash flow don’t tend to be as generous with their money as a king who already has a bank-full.
And after the king’s initial graciousness, it’s not even surprising that the king takes the servant to task for it - and punishes him *for his unwillingness to forgive.*
So Jesus drives the point home a little further - showing us the importance of taking this forgiveness business seriously - even when, perhaps *especially* when, it’s very very hard to do.
Some chapters earlier in the gospel Jesus taught his disciples to pray - forgive our sins, as *we* forgive those who sin against us. He taught us to pray that God hold us accountable for being gracious and forgiving!
And a few verses before today’s reading he tells them - whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
So Jesus… Jesus gives us the really difficult nut to crack in the conclusion of this parable. The king has handed that unforgiving servant over to be tortured, and Jesus says - “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I wish I could ignore this - but I just can’t. It’s too difficult to hear Jesus say this. It strikes the ear as placing conditions on God’s forgiveness. It sounds wildly inconsistent with the graciousness of the cross and *resurrection* that we celebrate here week after week.
Bluntly, I don’t know that I have The Answer to this troubling conclusion. But I have an idea.
In this chapter Jesus keeps upping the ante on the need to forgive.
Better to cut off your foot, than to cause a child to sin. The shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep and seek the one that is lost. If a member of the church sins against you, talk to them, again and again and again. And yes, if someone sins against you - forgive them seven times, seventy-seven times - even seventy *times* seven!
And now - just in case his disciples (that includes us) miss the point - he makes it blunt - as harsh as a bucket of ice water over your head -
When you pray “forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…” - this is what that can look like if you don’t take absolutely seriously the *hard work* - not just the warm-fuzzy work - of forgiveness.
When it’s easy to forgive - it’s easy. Where it really gets important is when it’s hard.
I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us that God is committed to retribution if that’s the system we commit ourselves to. I don’t believe he’s saying that God is indifferent to our suffering and says - “well ok, you picked it so...there you go.”
To believe that, is to make a god in our own image.
But - “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,” he said. So in that light, perhaps what Jesus is telling us here is a warning that we may put limits on even God’s power when it comes to delivering us from the hells of our own making. And we are totally capable of doing that - when we refuse to fully receive the forgiveness and grace that is extended to us by others - when we fail to make that grace the organizing principle of our own lives.
Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this parable that none of our sins and offenses will ultimately separate us from the love of God - but “...if we insist on binding others’ debts upon them...we will, by not letting grace have its way through us, cut ourselves off from ever knowing the joy of grace in us.” (The Parables of Grace, p.50)
In Zen, there is the image of “practicing like your hair is on fire.” Work toward your own enlightenment with a sense of ultimate importance - like you have to save your own life - because the awakening of all humanity depends on the awakening of even one individual.
To forgive as we would hope to be forgiven… We have to work for that like our hair is on fire. The salvation of humanity depends upon it - because the coming of God’s Kingdom requires OUR cooperation - requires OUR loving as Christ loves us, forgiving as God forgives...
As the bishop prayed:
Our son's blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls; So when his murderers stand before thee on the day of judgment Remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives. And forgive.