Pentecost XV Matthew 18.21-35
Our Lenten Study, The Book of Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu, was, as with many, most things, interrupted earlier this year as the harsh reality of the wide and rapid spread of the Coronavirus made its unwelcome presence in lives. Hopefully, the interruption of our study was not, is not, indicative of our forgiveness being interrupted. This is the most important work we can do as the children of God who grieves and rages with us, and for us, and for those who grieve and rage against us.
Today we hear we are not to judge, and we are to forgive. As forgiven souls we are to be forgiving souls.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciple Peter that forgiveness in the kingdom of God must be generous beyond limits. We are not to forgive our offenders a mere seven times, as suggested by Peter, but seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness should be our regular practice, our way of life, our default mode. Forgiveness is our default mode because we are a forgiven people - a people generously and lavishly forgiven by God. In the abundant grace in which we live, we are to pay the wealth of God’s forgiveness forward.
Forgiveness is not pretending that an offense doesn't matter, or that a wound doesn't hurt, or that Christianity requires us to forget past harms and ‘let bygones be bygones.’ Forgiveness is not acting as if things don't have to change, or assuming that because God is merciful, God isn’t grieved and angered by injustice. On the contrary, the starting line of forgiveness is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Of harm. Of real and profound violation. Whenever we talk about the need for forgiveness, we must begin by recognising and naming the extent of the brokenness.
And we do so because we were created for good. We were created for love, equality, tenderness, and wholeness. As image-bearers of God, we were made for a just and nurturing world that honours our dignity. When we experience any deviation from that basic goodness, it is appropriate - it is human and healthy and Christian - to react with horror. The same Bible that calls us to forgive also calls us to mourn, to lament, to speak truth to power, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Forgiveness in the Christian tradition is not a palliative; it works hand-in-hand with the arduous work of repentance and transformation.
In other words, there is nothing godly about responding to systemic evil with passive acceptance or unexamined complicity. As theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us, we must never allow forgiveness to degenerate into ‘cheap grace.’ That is, the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … grace without the Cross
Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation is not possible. Sometimes our lives depend on us severing ties with our offenders, even after we have forgiven them.
In this sense, forgiveness is not an end; it is a beginning. An orientation. A leaning into the future. Where it will lead is not pre-ordained. If forgiveness is not denial, or a shortcut, or a reconciliation, or an easy process, then what is it?
What exactly is Jesus asking of us when he tells us to forgive each other again and again and again and again? In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Nora Gallagher writes, Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past. Henri Nouwen writes, Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly.
Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family. While, as many of know, Desmond Tutu believes forgiveness is the best form of self-interest. If these writers are correct, then I think forgiveness is choosing to foreground love instead of resentment. Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, after describing mistreatment as a chain that binds us, writes stunningly about the power of forgiveness to free us for the work of justice and transformation. I want to share her words in conclusion, because they speak so powerfully. Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter.
And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for. I pray that we will take up this work of forgiveness for the sake of this broken and desperate world at a broken and desperate time. This is the most important work we can do as the children of God. May we loosen the chains of the hurts, the resentments, that bind us.
May we be free. Amen.