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.

No comments: