If to Err is Human, So Too is to Forgive

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 18:21-35 is the next episode in a complex narrative that involves three separate, yet intertwined storylines. For me, it is of paramount importance to keep the storyline thread in mind to avoid an approach to preaching that tends to treat each week’s gospel reading as if it sits in isolation. Seeing a particular reading in isolation from its location within a deeper and interconnected storyline blinds us the larger narrative, which in this instance Matthew is weaving. Faced with a section of disconnected text, we resort to searching for and finding a particular moral meaning.

Isolated reading

If we take Matthew 18:21-35 in isolation we easily draw the moral that it is always necessary to forgive others the hurts they commit against us. We look for the black and white meaning in the story. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question shows us that forgiveness is not quantitative in the sense that it can be limited to a specific number of times – seven or seventy or seventy times seven – there is no limit to our responsibility to forgive. To reinforce his point Jesus then tells the disciples the story about generous forgiveness and its counterpoint, mean spirited refusal to forgive.

Having established the general moral principle, that we are under an obligation to always forgive, we get caught-up in textual analysis of the passage. We ask who is the king, is he Gentile or Jewish? We note he must be Gentile because the size of the debt being forgiven is so large that it can only amount to a huge tax bill owed to the occupying authority. We note that the size of the debt that the unjust steward refuses to forgive is a relatively small one and could be easily written off without any cost to the steward. We can feel our outrage growing against the unjust steward. Instinctively, we all recoil from the use of power to abuse another. We long for such abuse of power to be called to account and punished. Analyzing the parable story leads to a moral sense of satisfaction when the generous King, on the information of his other outraged servants punishes the unjust steward, by re-imposing the debt and imprisoning and torturing him until he pays.

However, this is a problematic conclusion to reach because the image of the King in this parable seems to be an allegory for God. Our image of the King is an allegory for the image of a generous God. God forgives what we can never repay. Yet, it is given a twist when the generous King-God morphs into a vindictive tyrant who capriciously reneges on his promise. This is a very disconcerting turn of events, because it suggests that what is forgiven by God can easily be unforgiven -if we fail to live-up to the self-modeling God shows us.

So we end up with a clear message that God expects us to forgive one another as we are forgiven – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we don’t then the message is, look out!

Frankly, I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion except to ignore it and go on about my life. If I think about it, which I normally don’t like to do, I notice there are many instances in my relationship with others where I am unwilling to release them from the grievances I harbor against them.

Contextual reading

In the Jesus storyline today’s gospel comes within the context of how the disciples are to behave towards one another. Jesus is not speaking to the crowds now, he is indoors with his disciples talking to them about how they should behave towards one another. This is a teaching about how they are not only to be accountable to  one another- as in, who gets to hold the power, but they are accountable for one another – as in, they have to look-out for one another. In the Matthew storyline, Matthew is weaving Jesus’ teaching into a teaching for his fledgling community. Like Jesus’ teaching of the disciples Matthew’s teaching is for a community that can’t afford to tolerate members harboring grievances against one another. Internal division and bad feeling threaten the survival of a community that is up against it in the world around it.

In both storylines the message is similar- forgive one another or else God will take back God’s forgiveness of you. Both Jesus and Matthew lived in worlds where everyone’s preoccupation was with the life to come, i.e. salvation. This preoccupation reflects a transcendent worldview in which the attention is focused on salvation and the life to come after death. In a transcendent worldview the threat that God will withdraw forgiveness is a very big stick.

By contrast the storyline we live in is one of immanence not transcendence. We live in an immanent worldview where our focus is on the here and now. In our world the reality of death is not looked forward to as entry into something better, it’s feared and denied as the ending of all there is. Our more egalitarian sense of justice recoils against the image of a God as hierarchical judge who has the power to go back on God’s word.

Within our immanent worldview human emotions and feelings are given a level of privilege, inconceivable to people living in a world of transcendence. So we recognize that sometimes we just can’t forgive because we value our feelings of rage and hurt as an authentic response to being hurt. Our psychological approach to the way human emotions work strengthens this trend in us. We all have learned that to deny our feelings only causes trouble down the line. We say things like: I can’t forgive, because I can’t forget.

Our more individualized culture means that we don’t need the same protections provided by being members of a Christian community. If we fall out with one another we just find another community. We have less skin in the game of needing to preserve communal unity. For us forgiveness is not owed only to those inside our community, but to everyone, it seems. Most of us find this an impossible standard to meet.

Reading the text in isolation as a stand-alone moral story leads to the impasse of God’s demand: forgive others, or else! Reading the text within its textual location as well as its divergent storyline contexts leads us to the question of how can God require me to forgive when I can’t forget?

Is forgiving forgetting?

In an age in which we pay careful attention to emotion and the destructive effects of emotional repression, following Jesus teaching on forgiveness challenges us to reflect on the way we cling to memories of past hurts, memories that in effect cherish and keep alive our sense of grievance. To let our cherished grievances go, i.e. to forgive feels like an unreasonable demand.

To forgive in the Greek literally means to send away. When we forgive we send away the feelings the memories of past hurt kept alive as if they happened yesterday. Yet, the difficulty lies in the way our sense of identity has constellated or organized itself around such feelings. Such feelings now create the stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are. To send these feelings away means to place the desire to forgive at the center of intentional living. This is a difficult and painful thing to do!

Let me give a personal example. Most of my life I have harbored a sense of rejection and lack of recognition, which I trace back to my very earliest experience with my parents. I don’t remember this experience, but I know about it because it has shaped a very personal narrative that has helped to explain to myself not only who I am, but also why I am.

For me this early- rooted sense lies not in the world of events. It’s not about what did or did not happen. It’s rooted in a deeper and more complex experience of negotiation between my growing infant-self and my experience of entry into a world that wasn’t ready for me. Although my parents loved me and did the best they could, neither of them was in the fullest sense necessary, were emotionally ready for my arrival in the world.

So much of my life has involved a struggle between this grievance-rooted personal narrative that led me to construct a protective identity as the unrecognized outsider, and my actual experience of life. My actual experience is that I have been, and continue to be significantly recognized and loved by those around me. The struggle is a reflection of the question: when will it be safe enough to send away those early sense memories and the protective identity they support? With the passing of each day I have grown to trust more my experience and to see my perceptions as limiting me in my capacity to live life more abundantly.

One of the saints of our time, the great Desmond TutuTutu comments:

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being of being human.

To send away  feelings and memories of grievance is possible once we see that our cherished identity as the victim, or the one who has been irreparably damaged by another’s actions, or disadvantaged by circumstance, does not best serve our self interest.

Archbishop Tutu was one of the principle architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with the task of opening up the dark and painful communal and individual experience of the apartheid years in South Africa. At http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu-south-africa/ as well as being able to view countless stories of the power of forgiveness to transform lives, we read Archbishop Tutu’s fuller expansion of the process of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not forgetting. The feelings of hurt and rage are real and should not be glossed over. Such feelings are natural. Yet, they must be worked through and not turned into something that continues to imprison us in a state of emotionally suspended animation.  Forgiveness is to  send away our sense of self, dictated only by painful memory. Forgiveness opens us to the reframing of our stories into richer narratives that include an enlarged story of who we really are. As we grow into this larger story, one that more accurately reflects the reality of who we really are, we discover a larger experience of the world around us. In an enlarged story of who we are we discover we are more than a victim of another’s trespass upon us. Low and behold, we discover that our power to love is stronger than our fear and our hate. At times this may feel like a two step forward, one step back kind of process as we struggle to realign long-held attachments to memories and the feelings they perpetuate. 

Retelling of the parable

The parable of the unjust steward is told by Jesus, and recorded by Matthew within the storylines shaped by a worldview where the fear of exclusion from God’s gift of grace reflected a popular cultural understanding of reward and punishment. I wonder, how might Jesus retell this parable differently within our own storyline? I rather suspect that a retelling of this parable might stress the discovery of the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness and how this frees us to attend to our own self interest. This discovery gives us greater confidence in our ability to struggle together within communities of the forgiven and the forgiving – communities where we model for one another the courage of forgiving and the humility of being forgiven.

The process of forgiving is not one we accomplish alone. Each day we are sustained to return to the task through seeing many others all around us doing likewise.

As we live in communities shaped by these practices, we will experience anew what it means to be forgiven — and forgiving. Perhaps then, when the invitation is offered, all of us will come to the table joyfully.  Susan Pendelton Jones http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=593


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