Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 19/Ordinary 24/Pentecost +13: Matthew 18.21-35
Well, now that I’m back from my long weekend with the Labor Day chicks, I have to face it: summer is over. Though it’s still hot as blazes here in Florida, returning from my time with the women means it’s time to shift into a new rhythm. There’s much to look forward to in the fall, but the transition is a bit bittersweet.
The calendar of the liturgical year, however, tells us that we’re still in the season of Ordinary Time. We have nearly three more months of it, in fact. Though we’ve been navigating this season for a good while, the gospel lections aren’t getting any easier. If anything, they’re growing more challenging. Ordinary Time takes us into the heart of Jesus’ teachings, where there is plenty to stretch and sometimes stump us. Next Sunday’s gospel lection provides an excellent case in point.
This passage follows on last week’s reading, which Jesus concluded by assuring us that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst. Peter, however, doesn’t allow us to linger in that moment. He knows that such concord and communion will not be a constant state among Christ’s followers. And so Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” In the Bible, the number seven is often used to signify perfection, completeness, wholeness: seven days in the first story of creation, the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house, seven churches in the book of Revelation. Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus cast out seven demons—a perfect complement—from Mary Magdalene. (“A demon for every day of the week,” Kathleen Norris writes, “how practical; how womanly.”) Yet when it comes to forgiveness, seven is not complete enough for Jesus. “Not seven times,” he says to Peter, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven [or seventy times seven] times.”
We sometimes hear this passage as referring to a situation where a person is persisting in sin, causing harm again and again, compelling our forgiveness anew with each occurrence. I wonder, though, whether Jesus is instead acknowledging that in the life of the community, we will sometimes have to make multiple attempts to forgive a single act of harm. I suspect that Jesus well knew that forgiveness is an act—and an art—that we would have to work at. Again. And again. And again.
In this passage, Peter is asking specifically about forgiveness in the context of one’s intimate community. The word he uses here, adelphos, refers to a brother or fellow believer. He’s talking about sin that comes by the hand of one who is part of our circle, our kindred. We sometimes feel this brokenness all the more sharply because it comes from a source so close to us, where there are habits of familiarity and bonds of trust. This kind of sin tests the connections of a community to the limit.
The word forgive comes from aphiemi, a Greek word with a rich constellation of meanings that extend to financial, relational, and physiological matters. Aphiemi can mean to remit, to give up a debt, to keep no longer. We can translate it as leave behind, let go, forsake, divorce. In Matthew 27.50, it’s what Jesus does with his spirit; he gives it up, releases it. Aphiemi is a powerful word that speaks of loosing our hold on something or someone, to renounce our claim to it.
To forgive someone involves a releasing, a letting go, that is countercultural. This kind of act goes against the grain of a society where one of the primary ways we gain power is by accruing debts owed to us, obligations not just of money but also of time, favors, and other things that we think are owed us.
Forgiveness is such a radical and challenging practice that, as is his way, Jesus has to tell a story to try to explain it. He describes a servant who owes his king a staggering sum of money that he cannot pay. The king threatens to sell him, his family, and all his possessions. Pleading with the king, the servant receives extravagant mercy but fritters it away when he refuses to forgive a small debt that a fellow servant owes him. When the king hears of it, he hands him over to be tortured until he pays his debt in full.
Jesus caps the parable by telling his listeners, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” It seems a harsh turn in the tale, with Jesus invoking an image of God as a torturer. Yet the truth is that it doesn’t take God to inflict pain on us for our refusal to forgive; suffering is a natural effect. The context of the parable makes sense, with its images of servitude, imprisonment, torture, and complex tiers of power. By what we refuse to forgive, we place ourselves in bondage.
Refusing to forgive someone who has harmed us often holds deep appeal because it is, in part, a path that seems to offer us a measure of control. This becomes particularly true in situations where the hurt has come from someone who has more overt power than we do. Our refusal to forgive may seem like the only way we can have any power. Yet as in the parable, our lack of forgiveness can eventually become a prison that not only holds the other person but our own selves.
Jesus never claims that forgiveness compels us to accept the behavior of one who has caused harm. He never tells us that forgiveness means saying that everything is okay or remaining with someone who persists in wounding us. In challenging us to forgive, he acknowledges that we may not be able to change the behavior of another, or to alter what they have done, but that we have power over how we will respond. To offer forgiveness means that we refuse to allow another’s sin to control us, to hold us, to bind us.
I’m intrigued that this parable should turn up in a week that holds the date of September 11. Amid the stark images and memories this anniversary stirs up, Jesus’ words remind me how important it is to persist in practicing the art of forgiveness, to work to keep my heart clear, to refuse to allow the destructiveness of another to colonize my soul. Forgiveness is an act that I can’t always conjure on my own. It instead requires a curious combination of work and grace. For my part, I have to cultivate an openness to the possibility. Sometimes it means asking to want to forgive, long before I actually do it, because I can’t always summon even the desire to forgive. But the forgiveness itself, that ability to release, to let go, to loose the bindings: that is purely the graceful work of God who does the same for me.
In this week of September 11, what might God be challenging you to loose your hold of? Is there pain, resentment, or anger occupying precious terrain in your heart? Is there any harm you are holding onto? Where is God in that for you? How might God be wanting to hold that for you, and to begin to release its hold on you?
In this and all weeks, blessings.