A reflection on Matthew 18:21-35 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
On October 2, 2006 a man entered a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines Pennsylvania and killed five young Amish girls and seriously wounded five others. Like all of the others acts of senseless violence in our country, this made headlines. The response of the Amish community of Nickel Mines soon became just as newsworthy. They were extending forgiveness to the shooter! Within hours of the shooting, community members went to the killer’s family members and offered statements of forgiveness and condolence for their loss. Members of the Amish community came to the gunman’s funeral, and perhaps most amazingly of all, they voted as a community that his family should share in a fund that was set up to aid the victims. Some of them even contributed personally to this fund. This Amish forgiveness is so striking to the outside world that it has drawn the attention of theologians and sociologists. The Amish are being asked over and over on what it is they base this “extraordinary” forgiving. And what they repeatedly say is two things…the Lord’s prayer and Matthew 18:21-35.
Jesus is teaching the disciples about how to be community. That hard task of being God’s kingdom here on earth. In our Gospel last week we heard about what we are to do when our brother or sister “trespasses” against us….to go to them, at first alone, with the intent of bringing them back, and how it is always about bringing them back. And that even when we take witnesses with us, or bring in the community, it is always about love and justice and always about recapturing the lost ones. It’s that larger vision that God has for reconciling to God and to one another. That countercultural vision that is challenging for us as humans. Today’s Gospel simply continues the lesson. Peter, in all his glorious humanity may have thought he was going to the head of the class on this one when he asked Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" a symbolic number that signified enough or completion. But Jesus, as always, taking it to an even greater vision, the kingdom vision, to God’s vision, says, “No, that’s not quite enough Peter…” In God’s kingdom even our usual understanding of what is enough is not enough.
In God’s kingdom vision, we must do the kind of forgiving that does not count at all… a kind of forgiving that is extravagant. The parable tells us that the slave owed the king “ten thousand talents” a huge amount which was more than the national debt of the Roman Empire at the time. It was so large that even if he were “to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions” there would still be no hope he could pay it back. When the king took mercy on him and released him from the debt completely, he was practicing the kind of forgiveness that Jesus was talking about. But then what happens? The forgiven slave turns around and does not forgive the relatively small debt another slave owes him, an equivalent of about four months’ wages for manual labor, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison. Hearing of this behavior, the king is outraged that this man to whom he has shown great mercy and forgiveness has not extended forgiveness in kind. He says to him “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” and throws him into prison “until he would pay his entire debt” – which, of course, can never happen! Here was a vision of the Kingdom. The king forgave abundantly without keeping count of the cost. Forgiveness, Jesus may have been saying, like God forgives. But then the slave withheld forgiveness, and found himself imprisoned, Here is God’s kingdom where there is forgiveness and mercy, but also judgment and justice.
Forgiveness. Clearly it is held before us as a standard of living a life as followers of Jesus. But what does it really mean? Can we do it? How do we do it? Do we have to be Amish? As you might imagine, this is an issue that comes up frequently for the people I encounter in the other part of my life. Many of the people I see in my clinical practice have been deeply wounded by the acts of others, and they struggle with this question of forgiveness. Sometimes we have conversations about what it does mean to forgive, and in those conversations we talk about what forgiveness is and what it is not, and sometimes that turns out to be a useful thing. So I thought maybe spending a few minutes thinking through that together here this morning might be helpful for us as well as we try to find ways of being faithful followers of Jesus.
One of the things we know is that forgiveness is a choice. Someone always can choose to forgive or not. Often when we have been wronged by someone what we hold onto most tightly is our resentment about the wrong that was done towards us, usually toward the person who committed the offense. In forgiveness, we freely choose to give up the right to carry that resentment. And we do so in essence as a gift to the offender who may or may not have done anything to deserve that gift. In forgiveness we make a choice to replace resentment toward the one who has harmed us with compassion. This does not mean that we change our minds about the act. We recognize that as the victim of an offense we have a moral right to anger, but we choose to release the anger—in essence as a pure gift to someone who may be completely undeserving, and indeed who may be completely unaware of the gift. But we choose to release them from a debt that they could never repay anyway. Just because we can….and not count the cost.
Forgiveness is not about the event. We do not say the offense did not happen, or that it was not serious if indeed this was case. We do not pretend we were not hurt by the act. We do not condone or excuse the behavior that was done. We still take it seriously. We still uphold its wrongness, its unfairness. We do not condone it or excuse the behavior. We do not forget it or sweep it under the rug. All of this does not preclude forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the same as pardon. Pardon implies repentance on the part of the wrongdoer. Forgiveness is only about the forgiver. In forgiveness the wrongdoer is not absolved of consequences for his or her behavior. Justice takes it course if that is to be the case. That does not preclude forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. That is about restoring a relationship which might involve developing trust or communication between the person who was hurt and the one who offended. This may never be possible or even desirable. It does not preclude forgiveness.
Forgiveness is decisional as well as emotional. Decisional or intentional forgiveness is a commitment to control our behavior not to act in revenge or avoidance towards someone who has hurt us even if our emotions have not yet caught up to the point where we feel less unforgiving. Emotional forgiveness often is a much longer process than decisional forgiveness. The two of course can be related. The decision to forgive and the commitment to act in a forgiving way does not magically make emotions change, but it certainly may make it more likely that the emotional transformation will happen.
Why forgive? Is it indeed about “forgive or you won't be forgiven?” This is not the way the God I know operates. The parable tells the story. The people I know who are having the hardest time with forgiveness, the ones who are holding on to the biggest resentments are often in a great deal of pain. Like the forgiven slave, the illusion of control given by holding on to their resentments locks them in the prison of their own creation. Freedom was granted him and his to pass on. The example was there before him but he could not make the choice for forgiveness, and it was his own inability to make that choice that imprisoned him. God’s kingdom is one of mercy and love, but also of justice. Forgiveness is granted in great measure, we are asked to pass it on as it has been given to us.
And fortunately, as with all of these hard things we are asked to do as followers of Jesus, we are not alone with this one either. We have the Incarnate One as God with us, both to show us who God is and to show us how the Kingdom here on earth can be lived out and who we can be what we are truly capable of at our best and most authentic. We have Jesus’ ongoing spirit alive with us, in Word and Sacrament and in community to strengthen us for the task, to remind us who and whose we are. May we forgive as we are forgiven and be forgiven as we forgive. Amen.
Contributions from Amish Grace by D. Kraybill, S. Nolt, D. Weaver-Zercher