Sometimes it’s the stories that are easiest to understand that are the most difficult. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us a story about forgiveness. There was a slave who owed his king an enormous sum, ten thousand talents, billions of dollars in today’s terms. When the king demanded payment, of course the slave couldn’t pay, and so he was ordered to be sold along with all his family, as provided for by the law. The condemned man fell on his knees and pleaded for mercy, and out of pity, the king released him and forgave him the debt.
But then, the released man comes upon a fellow slave who owes him a much smaller sum, about three month’s wages. When the second man is unable to pay, the first ignores his pleas for patience and instead throws the debtor into prison. When the king finds out, he’s angry. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave as I had mercy on you?”
The point of the story, I think, is clear. Just as each one of us has been forgiven by God, we are to forgive our brothers and sisters.
Now this shouldn’t come to us as a big surprise. Each week we recite the Lord’s Prayer together, and we pray, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. Jesus, in this parable, is simply repeating and reinforcing that principle, albeit in dramatic fashion.
Forgiveness. Simple in theory. So very difficult in practice.
Why do we find forgiveness difficult? It’s worth thinking about that for a moment. Consider a time when you found it difficult to forgive another person. I’m not talking about the time someone bumped into you, said they were sorry and you accepted their apology. No, I’m talking about the hard stuff. When you or someone you love was really hurt, intentionally hurt. Or whatever it was, whomever it is, that you find really hard to forgive. If nothing comes to mind, think about times when you find it difficult to forgive yourself. Enter those places for a moment. Why do we find forgiveness difficult?
Take a moment to think, and feel free to talk to the person next to you if you like.
Why do we find forgiveness difficult? Here are some of my thoughts.
Forgiveness is difficult because it means letting go.
When we forgive, we have to let go of something. Something that we might want. I am reminded of a story I heard about how to catch a monkey in some parts of south-east Asia. To catch a monkey, you take a coconut, hollow it out, nail it to a tree and put a banana inside. The trick is to make the hole in the coconut just big enough so that the monkey can put his hand inside to grab the banana, but small enough so that when the monkey clasps his hand around the banana, he can’t get his hand back out of the coconut. And with that the monkey is trapped. In order to escape, all the monkey has to do is let go of the banana, but he can’t. He wants the banana too much. He’s trapped.
Sometimes forgiveness means letting go of something you really want. Forgiveness may mean letting go of knowing that I was right and you were wrong. It may mean letting go of the hope that the past can be changed or justified. It may mean letting go of our instinct for justice. It may mean letting go of power that we have over another person. And letting go of things that we want or find valuable is hard.
Forgiveness is difficult because there is a natural human tendency to think that people should get what they deserve.
Call it Karma. A merit-based society. The economy of exchange. Quid pro quo. Whatever you call it, there is a natural human tendency to think that people should get what they deserve.
A few years ago, I read a story in the newspaper about a pastor in Wisconsin who received a phone call one day from the local prison. There was a young convict there who wanted to be baptized. The minister went to the prison and he met the young man. The young man’s name was Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who had confessed to brutally murdering 17 young men and boys in 1991. His depraved actions made headlines around the globe and caused the world to recoil in disgust.
Dahmer turned to God and to this Wisconsin pastor seeking redemption and forgiveness. Was he sincere? Who knows? After some time, the pastor baptized Jeffrey Dahmer and welcomed him into the family of God. Every Wednesday the two would meet and pray, sharing their faith. Six months later, Dahmer himself was brutally murdered in prison.
But that’s not the end of the story. In the years that followed, many people shunned the pastor who baptized the serial killer. They grumbled that others had been more deserving of the minister’s time and pastoral care. They were angry with him. They wanted no part of a heaven that included Jeffrey Dahmer.
There is a natural human tendency to think that we should get what we deserve. That makes forgiveness hard. But Jesus shows us that God is not like that.
Forgiveness may be difficult because we have been wounded.
Sometimes people do things that wound us deeply. There are times when forgiveness is difficult because of the need to protect ourselves, to avoid re-opening wounds that have not yet healed. Forgiveness can make us vulnerable. Often that is a good thing. But not always. There are times when we are not yet ready to forgive. I think that it’s instructive that Jesus embeds his principle teaching on forgiveness not in a commandment but in a prayer. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We may not be ready to forgive today. But we can this day pray that God will heal our wounds and move us to a place where forgiveness becomes possible and the hold that the past has upon us can be released.
Forgiveness is difficult because we come at it with a legal or accounting mindset.
We often think of forgiveness in legal or accounting terms. We think in terms of a legal structure of right actions, wrong actions, judgment and punishment, and then we add in forgiveness as a kind of escape clause, a one-off suspension of the normal legal consequences. If we think in these terms, it is only natural to ask the question that Peter did, how many times must I forgive?
Peter was probably familiar with the rabbinic teaching of the time that went something like this: If your brother wrongs you and you forgive him, you are generous. If your brother wrongs you a second time and you forgive him, you are exemplary. If your brother wrongs you a third time and you forgive him, then you are a fool!
Now Peter, knowing that Jesus was big on forgiveness, tries to impress him by increasing the number. “How about seven times? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
But Jesus’ reply is that if you’re counting, you don’t really understand forgiveness. Because forgiveness is not a transaction that can be counted. It is rather, a way of being in relationship. When we forgive each other, life becomes relational, not transactional. And to enter into the sort of relationship that Jesus is calling for means that we have to let go of certain things. We don’t get to hold grudges. We don’t seek revenge. We don’t get to feel superior to others. We don’t allow ourselves the satisfaction of thinking that the other person is wrong. We let go of all that. Instead we forgive. And we love. And we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, the sort of fools that the rabbis were talking about.
That’s what Jesus did. That’s what God is like. No one said that being in that sort of relationship is easy. But we have been called to love others the way that God has loved us. And only forgiveness makes that possible.
Forgiveness is hard. But you don’t want to hear me talk only about difficulties, you know the challenges only too well. Where’s the good news in the story that Jesus tells about the king and the slaves?
The good news is that forgiveness starts with God. The story Jesus tells begins with the king. Faced with the enormous, overwhelming, crushing debt of his slave, the king forgives the debt. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that by forgiving, the king gives his slave his life back, gives him a new lease on life. That’s where forgiveness begins: God looks upon each one of us with favour and forgives us of all our sins, so that we can begin a new life in relationship with him and each other.
That’s a cause for celebration! This should be a joyful, life-changing, transformational moment. But the tragedy in the story Jesus tells is that the slave who is forgiven doesn’t seem to realize or appreciate the gift he’s received. Instead of being transformed by it, he seems to take it for granted. He continues his life as if it’s business as usual. But it’s not.
We have been set free by the amazing grace of God. It’s no longer business as usual. Forgive others, as God has forgiven you.
Homily. Yr A P23, Sept 17 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 14.19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14.1-12; Mt 18.21-35
Image by Craig Sunter, Creative Commons