Sunday, September 14, 2014

Limited Forgiveness

Are there limits to what God will forgive?

Proper 19a • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
His lord summoned him and said to him, You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Today’s Scripture readings confront us with two deeply troubling passages. In the reading from Exodus, God delivers his chosen people Israel by causing the waters of the Red Sea to part so that they can pass through on dry land — safe and secure to the other side. So far, so good. But then God brings those walls of water crashing down upon the chariots and the drivers of pharaoh’s entire army, all those who had followed the people of Israel into that miraculous channel. There is no getting around the horror of this scene, and even though the Israelites will go on to sing in joy about their deliverance, we are treated to the reminder, in that closing verse, that they also saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore: bodies bloated, twisted, sodden with water, eyes glazed, staring sightless the sky— strewn on the seashore like so much rubbish or rags. It is a truly horrible, nightmare scene.

Exodus goes on to record that Moses and Miriam and the children of Israel celebrated and sang in thanksgiving for their deliverance, rejoicing in the downfall of their enemies. But there is also a Jewish tradition that when the angels in heaven began to join in the song,

the Holy One himself told them to stop. God said to the angels, “The works of my hand are perishing in the sea, and you want to sing praises?!”

That leads me to ask, why is God so hard on the Egyptians, who are the works of his hands as much as are the children of Israel? Why not let them escape with a lesson learned? Why toss them into the sea and bring those waters down upon them so that not one of them remained?

The clue to answer these questions lies in that second terrible reading we heard today — that story from Matthew’s gospel about the unforgiving slave, the one who although forgiven himself fails to forgive another slave, and so pays a terrible price — not just being thrown into prison, but being tortured until he should pay the entire debt. Jesus tells this tale in response to Peter’s question about how often one should forgive someone who offends against you. Probably thinking himself generous, Peter suggests seven times would be more than enough — but Jesus responds with a number eleven times that: one is to forgive 77 times.

That multiplier eleven reminds me of just how many chances Pharaoh is given — ten times Moses comes before him demanding that he let the people go, and all but the last time he says No; but then he backs out of his agreement and sets out after the people of Israel to recapture them. But even then, he gets one last chance — the eleventh — when he sees the waters part and Israel escape on dry land. He has the opportunity to see the hand of God at work in this miraculous deliverance, one last chance to repent the error of his ways and turn back; to forgive and forget. But he doesn’t take this eleventh chance — he orders the chariots forward. Which is how he ends up losing his army in the depths of the Sea.

At first this faces me with a dilemma — if God says you should forgive those who sin against you 77 times, why is God so hard on Pharaoh, and on that wicked slave in the parable. And the answer is that God forgives everything but the refusal to forgive. The wicked slave’s master forgives his debt, but not his failure to forgive another’s debt.

This answer shouldn’t really be so strange to us. To be forgiven one must forgive. Isn’t that what we say every day in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us? The moment we stop forgiving, whether the first or the eleventh or the seventh or the seventy-seventh time, we are cutting off forgiveness for ourselves, cutting it off as surely as the waters of the Red Sea were cut off and then turned back on again.

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God, it seems, is ready to forgive any sin except the sin of being unforgiving. And that is so because nothing is so unlike God — and what God wants for his people — as being unforgiving. I said a few weeks ago that the mercy of God is like a well that never runs dry, and that is true. God is always more ready to forgive than we are to repent of our own sins — but the lesson before us today is that God is not ready to forgive us our failure to forgive others for their sins against us. In other words, God wants us to be like God — to be loving and forgiving. We cannot be like God in power, or in wisdom, or in any of the other ways in which God so far surpasses merely human life — but we can forgive

when others sin against us.

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In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul makes this point very clearly: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” I reminded us a few weeks ago of the clear, succinct teaching of Jesus, “Do not judge.” For judgment is the opposite of forgiveness — and in the long run, as Paul suggests, it is a form of idolatry in which we put ourselves in the place of God and act as if we were the agents of God’s judgment. But what God wants from us is to be God’s agents of forgiveness — to spread the grace rather than the fear, to forgive the debts and the trespasses, the harms and the hurts, the offenses and the crimes. How did John the Evangelist put it: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” Christ commissions us as his agents in spreading that work — the Son’s work — not the work of condemnation, but the work of salvation and grace through the forgiveness of sins. We are not called to store up grievances and grudges but to pour out grace and gratitude.

The irony is that some people think they are acting most like God when they judge others; when in fact we are most like God when we forgive others — for it is in God’s nature to forgive. And the only thing, it seems, that God will not forgive is that narrow, stingy, mean, nasty tendency not to forgive.

We learn a lesson today from Pharaoh and his army, his chariots and his horsemen; we learn a lesson from the slave in the parable — when given the opportunity to be tough and mean, to hold people to standards that meet our expectations (even when we fail to meet the standards others set for us), to keep people down instead of setting them free: God has shown us how to act, in graciousness and generosity, and with forgiveness, so that we too may be forgiven every fault or failing in our lives. Mark the words of Jesus: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Brothers and sisters, let gratitude and grace abound, the gratitude of forgiving one another all we owe each other, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will truly be with us ever more.


3 comments:

Lionel Deimel said...

I’ve always felt sorry for the chariot drivers, who were not given the choice of forgiving or not.

Tobias Haller said...

"I was only following orders...."

June Butler said...

Well done. I think we cannot be reminded of Jesus' teaching on forgiveness often enough. We hear the teaching, and it's up to us to choose whether to follow or not, but, if we choose not to forgive, then we cut ourselves off from God's forgiveness. So, it's our choice, not God's choice.