And Jesus said, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” –Mark 11.25
Now, before I set in, let’s each take a moment of silence now, and reflect on those times that people have hurt us. It can be something from the past week, or something we’ve been holding onto for a very long time now. It can be one thing or lots of things. Let them come to mind, so that we can bring them to God.
So I was browsing facebook this week and saw that one of my friends had posted this (rather tongue-in-cheek) status:
“I wanted to ask God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness instead.”
Now, (I pray) the author of that status was just cracking a joke, but I think there’s still a lot in this. It’s funny, because it plays on our culture’s misunderstanding of what forgiveness is, and how it works – especially when it comes to God’s forgiveness. I mean, do we really believe that God would forgive someone this person for stealing a bike, while he still has someone else’s bike. I’m not sure God works that way. So, let’s go back to the parable for today, and see what Jesus has to say:
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Hmm, well that’s a hell of an ending (no pun intended) – there’s no getting away from that ending – it’s clear that whatever forgiveness is, it’s certainly a very serious matter for Jesus. But let’s go through this step by step. So this slave is called up to meet with the king, and apparently this poor slave owes 10,000 talents – this was an exorbitant amount of money (1 talent was what a laborer made in a year) – it’s possible that this crushing debt is part of the reason the man is a slave in the first place. And the story goes that the king forgave this slave his incredible debt, and sent him on his way. Now the slave was apparently owed 100 denarii from a fellow slave. This is comparatively little – a laborer could earn about 1 denarii per day, so that’s only about 100 days wages, relatively little compared to the 10,000 years of wages he’d just been forgiven. Now, you’d expect this slave would be in a better mood after his meeting with the king had gone so well, but apparently that’s not the case, and he demands payment and has his fellow slave thrown in jail. And here’s where it gets important: the king hears about this and is furious – “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me,” he says, “Should you not have has mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
These are hard words for me to hear. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I can see a lot of myself here in this slave. I can look at my life and see all that I have been forgiven, but extending that forgiveness to others is so hard. And I think there’s a bit of this slave in all of us – we appreciate forgiveness when it’s offered to us, but when it comes to our own debts we want what we’re owed. CS Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Forgiving not only means moving past the hurt, and opening ourselves up for reconciliation, but giving up the power that comes with someone owing you. If someone has hurt us, its so tempting to want to hold that over their head, or pretend that we are somehow morally superior in the relationship because we’ve committed no such wrong (it’s amazing how forgetful we can be with our own sins!). And all of these things – moving on, opening ourselves up, and humbling our haughty moralism – hurt a lot; they are some of the hardest things any of us will ever do.
It’s so much easier for us bunker down into a hatred for the person, or lie to ourselves, and convince ourselves that we’ve forgiven the person when we’ve really done no such thing. We say things like, “It doesn’t bother me anymore, I don’t need to forgive them,” or “Oh of course I’ve forgiven them – I haven’t told them because we don’t talk much anymore, though.” There’s an old joke in which a priest once asked his congregation to raise their hand if they were willing to forgive their enemies (at least in theory) – and of course everyone raised their hands, except for one old woman in the front row. And the pastor says to her, “Really? Are you not willing to forgive any of your enemies?” And the sweet old woman – I like to call her Bella Jean – replies, “Well, father, I would, but I don’t have any enemies.” “That’s very unusual!” said the father, “how old are you?” “Ninety-three,” she answered. “Oh Bella Jean, what a blessing and a lesson you are to us all. Would you please come down in front of this congregation and tell us all how a person can live ninety-three years and not have an enemy in the world.” And so little ol’ Bella Jean totters down the aisle, faces the congregation, and says: “Well, I outlived the old hags.”
Real forgiveness is hard, and it requires us to give up our right to pass judgment, and choose a continued relationship and reconciliation with that person instead. Now, this has often been mistaught and subverted into coercing people in abusive relationships to remain with their abusers – that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. Reconciliation requires an encounter, and a confrontation with, the wrong that was done – it does not move past it in a non-critical way, and it leaves no room for abuse. Forgiveness does not give free reign to those who wish to do us harm, and it is not an open invitation to take advantage of us – because (and this is critical!) as Christians, forgiveness is not an empty virtue whose meaning can be twisted. We didn’t invent forgiveness, and we don’t forgive just because it sounds like what a “good person” would do, or because we think it will somehow make us happier. Christian forgiveness is nothing more or less than a reflection of the grace God has already shown us – it is radical, and nothing can be the same once you let it have its way. Karl Barth once said, “Do not fear the wrath of God, fear the love of God – it will tear away everything.” Even our grudges, if we let it.
Christian forgiveness is not something we initiate, it is always responsive – it is always lived out in the wake of this incredible love that changes everything around it, even us. God has forgiven us and so we forgive one another – that’s why, every Sunday we first have the confession (Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you… and so on), and immediately after we pass the peace. God forgives us, and then we forgive each other. We remember the incredible grace we’ve been shown, we allow it to change us – to stifle that impulse we share with the slave to always demand what is owed to us – and we share that grace with one another.
All of that is to say, Christian forgiveness is communal, it changes us, and we can’t help but change the world. It leaves no room for the continuation of oppressive power structures and practices. Fear the love of God; because when we see – I mean really see – how deeply each and every one of us has been loved and forgiven, it’s bound to have consequences. One of the most tragic things about the state of the world is that this is not the case. Henri Nouwen writes:
“It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as “a contrite heart,” have come to refer only to the personal experiences of guilt and willingness to do penance for it. The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood and create in us the hope for a forgiving gesture. But if the catastrophical events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and the illness of millions of people and the unnamable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remains no more than a pious emotion.”
Forgiveness or a recognition of God’s love that remains merely a pious emotion is not forgiveness or a recognition of God’s love for us at all, but nothing more than a lie we tell ourselves.
However, equally, we can’t get so caught up in our work for reconciliation and social change that we start to make it all about us, and forget that forgiveness started with God – we forgive only because God first forgave us, if he hadn’t we wouldn’t even know what forgiveness is. We still only barely know what forgiveness is. At the beginning of the reading, Peter proposes what seems – to us – to be a rather generous offer: “Should I forgive my neighbor 7 times?” And we read along and think, “Ok, 7 times seems pretty reasonable, I can do that.” But, as usual, God is better than we can imagine, and replies that we ought to forgive 77 times. Obviously God is not suggesting that we all run out and buy a notebook, and start keeping count till someone hits 77 offenses, and after that we get to cut ties and quit the hard work of forgiveness. He’s just turning a phrase, please don’t go out and buy notebooks. The hard work of forgiveness never ends, but the good news is that God is hard at work right alongside us, and he will show us what to do.
In “A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World,” Ron Lee Davis retells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no peace, and no sense of God’s forgiveness.
In his parish there was a woman who deeply loved God and claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ. The priest – like us – was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” The woman agreed. A few days later the priest asked., “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”
“Yes, he did,” she replied.
“And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?”
“Well, what did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t remember'”
And, friends, is the Good News – our sins aren’t remembered, our slates have been wiped clean, and so let us pray for the grace that we might strive to do the same.