Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgiven and Forgiving (Matthew 18:21-35)

The lectionary is a tricky thing sometimes. It's a three-year cycle of Scripture readings organized by the church liturgical year. The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in year A has, ever since the Revised Common Lectionary was developed, had Matthew 18:21-35 as its gospel reading. In it, Jesus advises his disciples on the need for constant forgiveness and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

This year, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost falls on Sept 11. So ten years after a vicious attack on innocent victims by evil men, the gospel message is one of forgiveness. I doubt I'm alone in resisting that idea, but if I turn away from Scripture that I don't like I wind up with my own version of the Jefferson Bible where I've picked and chosen what makes me happy. That's an unlikely scenario for spiritual growth.

Our most common understandings of forgiveness cause some of the problem. Our society has laid a pretty heavy load on the word itself. We've invested it with emotional weight it may not have been designed to carry very well. And we've collapsed its meaning with another word, "reconciliation." In fact, I think many times people actually mean reconciliation when they say forgiveness. And they do not mean the same thing.

Reconciliation means that a broken or strained relationship is made whole again or renewed. Two friends separated by one friend's wrongdoing rejoin, and we can say they are reconciled. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but it isn't the same thing. Those two friends won't really reconcile until the transgressor asks forgiveness and the wronged person grants it. Then they can begin to heal that relationship and move towards reconciliation.

I believe we too often treat forgiveness as though it's something that erases a wrong and so we aren't willing to offer it when we need to. Now, maybe in small things that kind of erasure is a good idea -- married couples tend to learn early that score-keeping every fault or flaw in their respective spouses is...unproductive, let's say. So that forgiveness can mean not sweating the small stuff.

But some stuff isn't small. And pretending that such wrongs never happened is not a good idea. If I'm the wronged person who tries to act like the wrong never happened, I never confront and deal with the harm it caused. I can get away with acting like I never nicked myself shaving and not paying attention to the small wound. I can't ignore a severed limb, though, and trying to will have some pretty negative consequences. Plus, if I try to pretend some great wrong never happened, I never put the other person in the place where they understand the harm they caused. I think most people don't like harming others and if they see how they have, they try not to do it again. They won't see that if we try to pretend the wrong wasn't real.

Do we have to pretend wrongs never happened in order to forgive? I don't think so. I think forgiveness involves acknowledging real wrongs and real hurt, but refusing to let those hurts define us. Those who hurt us did so because, either through indifference or error, they figured our response to what they did wasn't important. They didn't care about the impact of their choice, and so we didn't matter.

Of course, we differ on that -- we do matter! They were wrong to try to define us as worthless! And so we refuse to let their definition of us be our definition of us. Their wrong act will not rule who we are or what we do. Forgiveness originally meant something like this. Jesus' story shows that the king forgave his debtor what he owed -- but he didn't lend him any more money, either. That would have required reconciliation -- the debtor would have had to have shown he would be able to pay back this new loan or the king would have just decided he didn't care if he got his money back. Simple forgiveness is different. The king said, "Hey, you don't owe me anything! And you're not going to owe me anything anytime soon, either!"

If you look at forgiveness that way, you might see why it's so important for us to do.  Let's say you're having a great day. But during that day, you run into someone who you don't like all that much. We're not talking a sworn enemy here, just someone who annoys you. What can happen to your good day then? Will you continue to have it or will you be bugged because you ran into that person? If you'd still have your good day, then up the ante a little to that sworn enemy. Now how's your good day going?

As long as you hate, as long as you choose to define yourself according to someone else's view of you, you give that person control over your life. You let that other person make a bad day for you. When you choose to define yourself according to your terms, or, for Christians, according to God's terms, then you have started to forgive.

You might also see why God's relationship with us requires us being forgiven first -- if God does not forgive us he gives us control over him, and that won't work. God had to make that work through Jesus, but at the core the idea is the same.

Such an idea of forgiveness might make some forgiving easier, but not all. I'm still very angry with the evil men who killed those innocents ten years ago, for example. And that lets them have power over me, so I ask God's help to reduce their power and replace it with his. In some cases, that may happen only in the life to come, but it is still what God wants of me, because it's what he did for me.

It may not be easy news, but it's still pretty good.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Lead Me, Lord (Psalm 119:33-40)

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the book -- 176 verses sorted out into 22 different sections. Each section begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. In seminary, they told us this meant it was an "acrostic" Psalm but that fact never came up in discussing its meaning, so I don't know why they told us that.

It's a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for...the law. To us Christians, this might seem a little strange because we are used to a more negative view of what we call "the law." In the gospels, legalist Pharisees try to trick Jesus with questions drawn from the law, and their own hair-splitting over the years has made an already complicated code more or less impossible to understand or to follow. They wield "the law" when they complain about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, and we come to think of the law the way we think of the main villain's henchman in a movie -- he's not the real baddie, but he's bad enough and we don't like him because of who he works for.

Paul also seems to pit the law against the main component of how he sees the gospel message, the magnificent grace of God lived out and brought through Jesus Christ. Because of the law, we know our selfishness and self-worship is actually sin that separates us from God. The law is the messenger that brings us that information, and while the old saying tells us not to shoot the messenger, it assumes we will have a reason to want to.

But to the ancient Israelites who heard and said this Psalm, the law was something a little different. For one, it was much more than just a rulebook. Yes, Leviticus especially as well as Deutoronomy and Exodus have long sections of regulations and codes. However, much of those first five books is the story of the people of Israel, especially in Genesis and the main part of Exodus. And when we read Jesus or Paul talking about the law, that's what they meant: all of those first five books, given in Hebrew the name Torah.

That name is another wrinkle. Although we usually translate it into English as "law," it was often used also to refer to "teaching." For Jewish people from the time of this Psalm to today, the world Torah will make them think "teaching," maybe even more often than they think "law code." Observant Jews will say, as does this Psalmist, that they delight in the Torah, or the teaching. They will ask God to teach them and give thanks that he does.

For the ancient Israelites, the Torah was a sign of God's relationship with them. He had already made covenant with them, through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then renewed it with Moses and again with David. God had said, "I pick you," and he didn't say, "Subject to do-overs if I feel like it." Then, in order to make their chosen status stand out, God gave the Israelites the Torah so they could know how God's people ought to act. Other people might have bizarre religious practices like human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but not God's people. Other people might think nothing of the rich using their wealth to treat the poor however they wished, but not God's people. Other nations might trust in the strength of their armies, but not God's nation.

In fact, the Pharisees originally focused on the same idea -- people who call themselves God's people ought to act like God's people. Legalism and hair-splitting took over that idea and made the smothering code Jesus' opponents used to try to trick him, but they started out just wanting to know how to follow the Lord.

Christians ask for the same kind of guidance in our lives, don't we? When facing an issue or a problem or a choice, we often want to know what God would like us to do so we can choose actions based on how they bring us closer to him. Maybe not as often as we should, but that's the idea. We might use the same words we read here: "Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes." Or "Turn my heart to your decrees." We might use others, too.

Now, sometimes we might say we don't know what God wants us to do. There are certainly issues we face today that are not in the Bible, because we live in a different time and deal with different things. But many of the times we ask, "God, show me what to do" God has already answered the question through his teaching.

For example, we are unlikely to run across a robbery victim left lying beside the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, so we may believe the story of the Samaritan is interesting but not very useful. But when we see someone picked on because of his religion, or because she lacks social skills and dresses funny, we know what we should do if we see them like the Samaritan saw the robbery victim -- our neighbors. And I bet we can remember what both Old and New Testaments say about how we respond to our neighbors.

If we want to follow Paul's direction not to be conformed to this world but be transformed, if we want to change our lives so that we can lead changed lives, if we want people to know we're God's people because we look and act like God's people, we need God to teach us. Our prayer can echo the prayer of this Psalmist -- not seeking a sterile and impersonal law that obstructs us but a teaching that enlightens us.