Sunday, November 10, 2013

Forgiveness and Retribution (Matthew 18:21-22)

It may be kind of weird, but I sometimes think that the Christian teaching of forgiveness is one of the places where we who follow Jesus have the hardest time setting aside what the world tells us about how to act in order to do what Jesus calls us to do.

I think that because it doesn't seem like Christians do any better at forgiving their enemies than do people outside the church. Yes, we're called on to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, but it seems even though we're carrying our own crosses we always have room for one more grudge. And I wonder why that is? Jesus proclaimed forgiveness as central to his message and he made it plain -- as plain in this conversation with Peter as it is anywhere else. The two men used the numbers seven and seventy times seven, which in their culture are shorthand like "24-7" is for us. Peter asks Jesus, "Shall I forgive every time?" Jesus answers, "Not just every time, but every time."

Why do we struggle with it so much then? There may be many reasons, but a key one to me seems that we misunderstand forgiveness and how to do it. The prevailing notion looks like we are to simply pretend a wrong or an injury never happened and that the hurt it caused never happened either. As best as I can tell, the world thinks that "forgiving" someone is like trying to play Obi-Wan's Jedi mind trick on ourselves and saying that whatever was done to us is not the 'droid we're looking for.

You can see the problem immediately: Those were the 'droids the Empire soldiers were looking for and the hurts we have been given are real. Our minds know they were real, and pretending they aren't creates a conflict between what we know to be true and how we're supposed to act. We can't reconcile living like nothing ever went wrong when we know that something did. Maybe with minor wrongdoings and understandings that's actually a good idea; if we all kept score of the little things that went wrong between us and others we would be pretty miserable most of the time. But with real wounds it just doesn't work.

So Christians try to work around Jesus' clear direction about forgiveness. I'll forgive, but I can't forget, we say. God will forgive that other person, but I can't. And other formulas that make it clear we're not doing much more than pay lip service to forgiveness while we really live by the code of retribution and getting even.

What if forgiveness meant something else, though? What if it didn't mean setting up a rickety house of cards of denial that will never bear the weight of real life?

See, another use of the word is in economic transactions, specifically debt. If I owe someone money (and I do), and they choose to tell me I don't have to pay them back (which they haven't done yet. Thanks a lot, Sallie Mae), then we say the debt is forgiven. But isn't that the same thing, you ask? Not exactly.

While the debt is forgiven, the cost remains. While I owe you the money, it costs me the amount of regular payments I make. If you forgive the debt, then the cost becomes yours because you won't every get back the money that you lent me.

If we put this back into the moral arena, see what happens when I forgive someone who has done me wrong? I accept the "cost" of the wrong and forgo my right to have that other person pay it. That may not seem fair, and in fact it isn't. It's the worst option there is, except for all the others. Because the others involve lives of retribution and revenge that are ultimately empty and meaningless.

Recently Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played swordsman extraordinaire Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, talked in an interview about two lines in the movie. One is the famous, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Inigo has spent his life searching for the man who killed his father so he can kill him. But Patinkin said another line struck him recently when he was watching the movie, near the end.

It's when he says, "I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with my life." Inigo has achieved his goal, but he has many years left and with his father's killer dead he has nothing left to do. Patinkin said it points out just how worthless a real life lived for revenge is, because it's either never fulfilled or it is fulfilled and the person learns they've wasted all those years. Now, in the movie, he decides to become a pirate, which just goes to show you that you can't take movie illustrations too far.

In the end, taking the cost of forgiveness on ourselves is not fair and it isn't just. We can't recommend it as either of those things to people who ask us why we Christians forgive our enemies. But realizing that Jesus forgave us and took the cost of our wrongs on himself -- I mean really realizing it and not just saying it -- should get us thinking. It may not be fair, but it's really the only way someone who claims the name of Christ can live, both to show his or her thanksgiving for God's grace and to show others how that grace can be made real in their lives as well.

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