September 17, 2008

Forgiveness and Evangelism

by Jessie Larkins
A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car that was in a minor accident in a local shopping center parking lot. Both cars, the one I was in as well as the one that sideswiped us, were traveling at an appropriate parking lot speed of about 2 mph. The collision, which put a fairly large dent in the front fender of my friend’s car and a crack in the front headlight on the other car, resulted in no injuries, no irreparable damage, and certainly no more pain and suffering than that of having to sit in the Wal-Mart parking lot for an hour in the middle of December while the police report was filed. As an adult passenger in one of the vehicles, I was, of course, asked for my license and a brief statement to corroborate the story of the two drivers. Being that it was my first real traffic accident to speak of, I had no idea what to expect after that point. 

Imagine my surprise when, on each of the following three days, I arrived home from school to find my mailbox absolutely overwhelmed with offers from local law offices pandering for my business. 

Of course they assumed that I would sue the other driver for all he was worth—after all, he had cost me at least an hour of lost productivity on a Sunday afternoon, the potential of many future health problems that could, of course, be attributed to this event, as well as untold emotional damage. Was I having trouble concentrating at work?  (Well, yes, but it is two weeks before Christmas—who can focus?) Did I feel a stiffness in my neck or back?  (I have been meaning to get a new bed pillow for that very reason....)  Was I having nightmares as a result of this event? (Should I tell them that just this week I started waking up in a cold sweat worried that I was surrounded by lawyers?) David and I had quite a good time flipping through this legal propaganda—joking about how we should quit our jobs and just hang out in our cars in the blind spots of local parking lots. 

At the end of it all, though, as the daily junk mail was cleared away and dropped into the recycling bin, we would shake our heads and wonder aloud: “Do people really do this?  Do people really buy into this mess?”

Unfortunately, the answer to our question is too often, yes. America in the 21st century is the most litigious country in the world.  We have one lawyer for every 300 people, including children.  We file more than 250,000 lawsuits against one another each year (American Bar Association). Many doctors are forced out of practice because they simply cannot afford the insurance costs to remain in practice. 

We have all heard, and probably laughed, at the headlines: “Woman sues McDonalds because coffee too hot;” “Man files suit against Burger King for obesity.” 

You may have heard the statistic that the divorce rate for Christians is no less than for mainstream culture. There is no evidence that nations comprised of predominantly Christian citizens are less likely to be engaged in war than any other—Muslim or otherwise. The fact that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church now exists in any of 39,000 (!) denominations worldwide proves that we are not always very good at the work of forgiveness and reconciliation (Wikipedia). I found no credible evidence that Christians were any less likely to engage in the vicious cycle of tit-for-tat-get-back-and-get-even.  

If these statistics don’t surprise you, I hope that they at least alarm you a bit. We live in a world where the cycle of retribution and violence will eventually result in what our preacher last week called “Mutually Assured Destruction”—of our marriages and families, of our communities and neighborhoods, of our churches, our environment, and of our nation. The world is in desperate need of a new way of living—you only have to turn on the TV news for about 30 seconds to realize this. This is probably why Jesus took so much time to preach about ethics and how we live as Christians. Perhaps it’s time we paid attention.

In addition to those pesky and demanding Sermons on the Mount and Plain that command us to love our enemies and to rejoice when persecuted, Matthew devotes an entire chapter of his gospel to Jesus’ teachings on how we live together as believers. 

Jesus begins chapter 18 with his discussion of children, commanding that we be a community of hospitality and sanctuary for them. He condemns those who would put a stumbling block to any of these little ones coming to know and love God. 

We certainly don’t need to dig deeply into the news to find evidence of the damage caused to the Church’s witness by scandals and allegations of misconduct towards children.  Next, Jesus tackles this notion of how we deal with conflict within the body.  Our preacher spoke last week about our need to resolve conflict in such a way that relationships remain intact and unity is maintained.  

Finally, today, we come to the climax of Jesus’ teaching in which Jesus addresses the issue of forgiveness.  What is the magnitude of injury at which point it is OK to strike back?  If my neck had been whiplashed in that accident and I still suffered recurring nightmares of that afternoon such that I was afraid to get in my car and had lost my job as a result—then, Jesus, would it be OK to seek recompense? Certainly there must be a limit to forgiveness, Peter claims!  

Peter knows the Jewish law when he asks this. He knows that the Law requires that one forgive injury up to three times. He must feel as though he is being especially generous in suggesting seven as the point at which forgiveness, even of a brother or sister in Christ, must find its limit. I’m sure that Jesus’ response caught him off-guard.

Some translations offer that Jesus’ response was seventy-seven times to forgive a wrong suffered at the hand of another brother or sister. Other translations say seventy times seven, or 490 occasions of forgiveness. Either way, the number hardly matters. “Jesus is telling him not to assume that you can count how many times you offer forgiveness and then be done with it” (Jones).  

The parable offered by Jesus goes, perhaps, to the heart of the matter. He tells the story of two servants—the first who owed a ridiculously large quantity of money to the king, and the second, who owed a large, but manageable sum of money to the first servant. Servant number one we are told owes the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of currency in the Roman Empire. ONE talent represented 15 years of work for one laborer. 10,000 talents would then be the equivalent of 10,000 workers slaving for 15 years, devoting the entirety of their earnings to this debt. To put it lightly, this guy’s debt makes even a totaled BMW and back surgery look like peanuts. 

When the debt collector came around, this guy found himself in dire straights, realizing that there was no way he could bargain his way out of his mess. Figuring that this was a pretty good time to beg for mercy, the servant falls on his knees and pleads. Despite such a large debt, the king has compassion for the man, forgives him, and sends him back to his wife and children. On the way, servant one meets servant two, a man who owes him 100 denarii. A denarius was a smaller unit of currency roughly equivalent to a days’ wage for one laborer. Though I would hardly like to give up four months’ salary, this was certainly a more manageable debt. Trying to save face, the first servant calls the second servant to account for this debt. When this debtor is unable to repay, the first servant immediately goes into a rage and imprisons the second servant. When the king gets word of this situation, he goes to the first servant demanding to know why he would not show others the same mercy that he had been shown. 

What this servant failed to account for—what we ourselves fail to account for each time we find ourselves in a position of conflict, debt, or disparity and seek retribution for our wrong rather than forgive—is that he (and we) are debtors long BEFORE we are creditors. The unmerited forgiveness of the king towards the first servant reminds us of God’s overwhelming grace and forgiveness to each one of us. We too have been forgiven a debt that, like that first servant, we could never repay.  The king demands of the servant, and we too must ask ourselves. 

Could we be unforgiving and ungracious to our neighbors and their faults if we calculated our own indebtedness to one far greater than ourselves? 

Even more, having been forgiven this immeasurable debt, how can we not desire that others experience the same freedom that we ourselves have experienced by not having our debts counted against us? 

By telling this parable, Jesus does something that one of my seminary professors used to do to us students when he would write on the top of our papers: “It’s about God, stupid.” He turns the question around to make forgiveness and reconciliation FIRST about God and only secondarily about us. Peter’s question assumes that the limitations of human strength and patience are the measure of forgiveness. Jesus directs Peter not to assume that he is the one in the position of power when it comes to the question of forgiveness. First he says, we must know ourselves as ones who have been greatly forgiven by God. When we replace God at the center of it all, we see that forgiveness is really about who God is; and about who God makes us as forgiven and reconciled people. When our own debt is cleared, is it possible for us to continue to demand repayment from those who owe us? We have no need to justify ourselves any longer.

It seems to me as though the entire gospel is summed up in this short parable. It is the story of God’s unrelenting love, making us the servants who have been set free from our debts in order that we might offer the same to others, witnessing to the benevolence of our king. Jesus knows that forgiveness is contrary to our human instinct to bite back and devour. What Jesus is asking Peter to do is add God’s love and grace into his limited calculation of human forgiveness. In our own forgiveness we find an abundance of grace large enough to not only cover our own debts but the debts of those who have wronged us. Wrong and right are no longer a zero-sum game when God’s grace is factored into the equation. When we do this, we find enough grace and forgiveness to transform every level of human relationship from families to nations.

Forgiveness of the brother or sister who has wronged us is, therefore, a mark of Christian discipleship — a mark of the Christian community seeking to be Christ’s presence in the world. We speak often of the UM mission statement that asserts that we, The UMC, exist as a community of disciples “for the transformation of the world.” Can you imagine the transformation and renewal that might occur if Christians began forgiving others as in Christ they have been forgiven?  If we allowed forgiveness and grace to define our relationship to one another and the world, there would be a radical shift in the way the world sees the church and comprehends the gospel! What kind of community could and would be sustained on the presumption that forgiveness is always available?  Might churches begin to unify rather than divide?  Might the divorce rate for Christians drop below 50%?  Might Christians drop their swords (or automatic weapons) in favor of plowshares (or carpentry tools or educational programs)?  Perhaps it sounds imprudent or na├»ve, but the imperative of today’s gospel message is that we MUST learn to forgive one another—it is proof that God’s love reigns in our hearts; it is proof for the world that the gospel is more than just words to us.

We are quick to condemn the first servant for his hypocrisy, but fail to realize that we are guilty of the same each time we refuse forgiveness—no matter the cost—to our brothers and sisters.  Too often I hear from folks in all different walks of life that the one reason that they can never imagine coming to church is because it is full of hypocrites. For too long Christians and the church have settled to be defined in the public eye by scandal, split, and disagreement, throwing tantrums and slamming doors, fighting fire with fire (and other weapons of destruction). We are condemned by the ways in which our walk fails to match our talk.  Can we truthfully proclaim a God of boundless love, mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness—can we truthfully claim God’s grace for ourselves—and fail to offer that same mercy, love, and forgiveness to one another or our neighbors? What Jesus offers Peter (and the entire Christian community) in this lesson is a chance to be defined, empowered, and FREED by the love, acceptance, and forgiveness of a God who does not count our debt against us. When we recognize the grace offered to us in such abundance, we are able to surrender our need to nickel and dime, manipulate, harangue, and bite back when wronged—we are gifted to see our brothers and sisters as children of God desperate for an experience of God’s grace.  Because of God’s willingness to forgive and even suffer greatly for our debt rather than have anyone be lost to God, we have a model for our own forgiveness and evangelism. 

Folks are drawn to the gospel by seeing it lived out in real life a thousand times before they understand the words. Folks are desperate for a new way of living that breaks the cycle of tit-for-tat, payback or pay-up. We proclaim a God who has, in Christ, broken the vicious cycle of retribution and violence in which humans have been stuck since our exile from the Garden of Eden. By breaking this cycle of retribution, God transforms and gives new life to our relationship with God and one another by allowing us to participate in the spreading of divine grace and forgiveness to our neighbors.  If we desire that others be drawn into the gospel story—that none be lost to God—then we must first be willing to witness in our own lives to the reality of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. More than any smart words we could write to persuade others to accept the gospel, offering forgiveness and love—whether to our spouses, our children, our co-workers, people of the opposing political party, our leaders, and even, dare I say, to those who commit heinous crimes against us—is our witness.  It is the hope we share for a world transformed, where the cycle of violence and retribution has been broken by a God who was willing to empty himself into human form—to mount a cross for our sakes even when we were enemies of God—to forgive us seventy times seventy times seventy times (and more) though so often we know not what we do.

This, my friends, is our proclamation of the good news. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. 

Now, go and share this grace.  Amen. 

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