Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
American culture has bastardized forgiveness into a self-serving tool. For proof, look no further than the Mayo Clinic website or a personal favorite, wikiHow Comparable to its detailed instructions on how to train for a 5k or get rid of a pimple, Wiki provides a 12-step prescription on “How to Forgive,” complete with additional tips and warnings like “forgiveness is hard!” These sites, in addition to others of the self-help variety, commonly extol using forgiveness as a way to better your own physical and emotional health, with the bonus of decreasing stress and potentially increasing your life span. Forgiveness is 100% about you.
This week’s parable in Matthew offers a corrective to this stunted understanding of forgiveness. We first learn, per Jesus, that we have an obligation to extend forgiveness – or release someone from the metaphorical debt they owe you – essentially without limit. The parable also makes clear that we forgive even small slights, because we have already been forgiven a debt that we could never repay. Our ability to forgive is a reflection of and witness to God’s forgiveness of us. Finally, even though it is expected of us, the gesture has to be genuine – “from your heart” (18:35).
The expectation to forgive is a recurring theme in Matthew. This particular parable recalls a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus gives instruction on how to pray. It will sound familiar, “Pray then this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (6:9-13).
Jesus further emphasizes the foundational nature of forgiveness in our relationships, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15).
Although basic to Christian life together, that does not mean that forgiveness is easy or quick. (Worth noting: Forgiveness also isn’t reconciliation). Forgiveness requires working through your own stuff: exploring why somebody’s off-handed comment or action hurt you. Parishioners may have to sit with anguish to forgive, especially when they’ve experienced grievous harm at the hands of another.
Furthermore, forgiveness of the Christian variety – rooted in other than self and offered repeatedly as a duty, a spiritual discipline – doesn’t make sense in our me-centered, individualistic culture. It has been made palatable in a secular context by divorcing it from the realm of religious obligation and explicitly stating that its end is benefit to self.
This means that if Christians rely only on personal fortitude and self-interest to summon forgiveness rather than reflecting and drawing from the eternal wellspring of forgiveness offered to us, our efforts will always be stunted and idolatrous.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that examples of explicitly Christian forgiveness garner attention. Christians don’t talk about forgiveness the way that secular culture does.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and prophetic voice on race in America, relates a sobering story that is only more poignant in light of recent events in Ferguson, MO. Earlier this year, Coates followed and wrote on the trial of Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man, who shot and killed Jordan Davis, an African-American teenager, but was acquitted of murder.
After the verdict, Coates interviewed Lucia McBath, Davis’ mother, and expressed awe at her grace and capacity to forgive. Her response:
Don’t think that we aren’t angry. Don’t think that I am not angry. Forgiving Michael Dunn doesn’t negate what I’m feeling and my anger. And I am allowed to feel that way. But more than that I have a responsibility to God to walk the path He’s laid. In spite of my anger, and my fear that we won’t get the verdict that we want, I am still called by the God I serve to walk this out.
In a different article by Coates, McBath talks more about her journey towards forgiveness. Her account of forgiveness is of the sort that our lectionary passage demands:
I am praying for him [Dunn] and my church is praying for him. I forgave him a long time ago. I had to. It’s not just about Jordan. And I would not stand and wait for him to apologize. I don’t need his apology. I had forgiven him pretty much in the first 30 days. I just knew that was what I was supposed to do.
I remember one of the first interviews we did….And after, I was walking past St. Patrick’s Cathedral with my friend Lisa and I said, “Lisa, I have to go in there.” And I went in and I was just sobbing for two hours. And the Lord helped me forgive [Dunn] right there. In those two hours. I came out and felt like, “Okay, I am done.”
Forgiveness is hard. It is costly. But Christians don’t develop our capacity to forgive (and forgive again) because we’re aiming to reduce stress levels and increase life satisfaction. Those things may ultimately come to pass, but we forgive with God’s help because God forgives us. We forgive so that we can look each other in the eye and live together. We forgive because God expects it of those who follow Christ.
Who do you need to forgive? Who can help you grow your capacity to forgive? How can your congregation develop forgiveness as a defining discipline of life together?