The 1986 British movie “The Mission” is set in 18th c. South America and revolves around a Jesuit mission to a remote tribe. It stars Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit priest and Robert DeNiro as a mercenary and slaver. Although the scenery is stunning, it is a tough movie to watch, full of brutality and reminders of the worst the Church and Colonialism have inflicted upon the world.
At one point, in an act of penitence, Robert DeNiro’s character wraps his armor and sword in a bundle and ties it to his body. He makes his way through the jungle, up over steep cliffs and waterfalls, and crawls his way into the heart of the tribe’s village, begging their forgiveness and mercy. It is a powerful image of a person literally dragged down by their sin, almost to the point of death, and of the incredible freedom which untangling and untying the knots of that burden brings.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. The multi-leveled Aramaic in which Jesus spoke those words also have the meaning, “Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other.” [Neil Douglas-Klotz], “Detach the fetters of faults…” another translation says. Forgive us, untangle us, unchain us…
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Surely some of the burdens and concerns that we bring with us to a Sunday morning worship are the unresolved relationships, hurts, wounds, and transgressions we carry in relationships with others, some as close to us as any relationship we have, some more distant and impersonal. We drag them along with us, sometimes unable to let them go or cut them loose because the hurts go so deep, sometimes into our very sense of who we are. If we let go of those transgressions, those offenses, it feels like we will have betrayed a part of ourselves, maybe lost a part of ourselves. Sometimes it feels like justice demands that we not let go of the wrongs. Sometimes we have been the offender, and we cannot let go of what we did, because we feel we deserve to carry that guilt. And so we are all tangled up, tied in knots of regret and rage and righteousness.
“If a brother or sister sins against me, Lord, how many times do I have to forgive? Seven times?” [a perfect number] “Not seven times, my friend, but seventy times seven, or seventy-seven, or whatever number lets you know that it is endless.”
Peter wants to know how long he has to do this. What’s the limit after which he can hold on to that brother or sister’s offense and hold it over them? Like so many of us, Peter is inclined toward order and measure, toward accountability, predictability. Jesus tells him, as one commentator says, that “forgiveness is part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven…It’s not optional, not a choice, the way we want it to be.” [Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, 9/10/17]
The economics of this kingdom forgiveness, another commentator writes, is incongruent with the values and assumptions of the human economics and power and privilege that govern our social relationships. [Stanley Saunders, workingpreacher.org, 9/17/17] Three strikes and you’re out, we say. “Amnesty is where Republicans go to die,” I heard one political commentator say this week, in a discussion of the DACA legislation. We have to enforce the rule of law.
“How many times do I have to forgive? As many as seven times?” “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Then Jesus tells this story about a servant who begs his master to forgive him a huge debt. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like, he says.
“When the king began the reckoning of accounts, the one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”
From the get go, Jesus’ listeners would have understood that he is using over-the-top language. The debt of 10,000 talents would have short-circuited all Jesus’ listeners’ ears. A talent was worth more than 15 years labor for the typical servant. It would be, Professor Tom Long says, like a mailroom clerk at IBM owing the CEO a “bazillion dollars.” [cited in Matthews, sermonseeds, 9/17/17] Who was foolish here? The slave for taking out such a loan or the lord for giving it?
Nonetheless, Jesus says, the master had pity on him–and the rest of his family–and forgave the debt…thus freeing up all those below this head slave in the pyramid of relationships from their debts. But this fellow thinks only of himself, extorting what the next guy down the line owed him. “When his fellow slaves saw what had happened,” Jesus said, “they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.” The results are swift and brutal. The writer of Matthew’s gospel–not Jesus– most probably added, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Though it is a wild exaggeration, the social relationships described in this story would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners. They got that the king’s wiping of the first debt had implications for everyone. The first slave’s refusal to forgive the next slave mocked the king’s generosity and mercy. Where does mercy start in the kingdom of heaven? From the top to the bottom, all the way through. Forgiveness and mercy are the very atmosphere we breathe in the kingdom of God.
We don’t like to hear this. Does that mean that Hitler got off scott-free? Is there no justice for the child abused and tortured? The black-shrouded ISIS soldier who beheads his prisoner on videotape goes to a paradise with a hundred virgins? And on a closer-to-home scale, we have to forgive the spouse who cheated on us? The business partner who embezzled our money? The parent who disowns me and insults my partner because I’m gay? The punk who murdered my son? The family member who never fails to belittle or criticize or berate? Seven times would be hard enough, if even possible. Seventy-seven times seven? No thanks.
“Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who trespass–who sin–against us.” We are told we have to forgive, as it seems Jesus is saying here, but what about sins that are unforgiveable? Is this just a set-up for failure, for condemnation, for injustice?
With her usual insight and directness, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks for God–
“I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” “Jesus died for our sins,” we are told. “His death on the cross was the only thing that would satisfy God, that would pay the debt.” What a terrible God that would be! Instead, God says through Jesus, “I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.”
The knots we tie and are tied up in around forgiveness and offenses often require the long, hard work of counselling or psychotherapy, as they go to the very heart of who we are and our sense of self.
Pastoral counselor John Patton writes that more often than not, we discover forgiveness, rather than do it. Forgiveness is more often than not about shame, rather than guilt, he says, shame being some wound or injury against our very identity, against who we are, whereas guilt is more of a transactional breach. We discover forgiveness when we discover who we essentially are–beloved of God –and that we are infinitely connected to our offender, who, whether we like it or not, is also beloved of God. [Patton, Is Human Forgiveness Possible?] German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that shame is humankind’s grief over our estrangement from God, and the answer is reunion, community. Forgiveness is the medium in which we live in the community of God. Mercy is something God does, something God is, and when we live in God, we discover forgiveness and mercy, whether we can grant it or not.
Janis Abrahms Spring is a psychotherapist who describes 4 different options for her clients who are struggling with issues of forgiveness–the first is what she calls cheap forgiveness, which doesn’t take seriously the depth of the offense or the value of the person offended. The second is refusal to forgive, which keeps the bundle of offenses tied at least to the person offended, if not also to the offender. The third option Dr. Spring has come to after working with her clients is the option of Acceptance. “Acceptance is a responsible, authentic response to an interpersonal injury when the offender can’t or won’t engage in the healing process.” [How Can I Forgive You?] When the offender has died, or is unwilling to accept any responsibility or remorse, sometimes Acceptance is the healthy option. It affirms the humanity of the person who was offended, as they do the work of reclaiming their dignity and right to live released from burden of the past offense. It is not cheap forgiveness. And finally, Abrahms Spring describes Genuine Forgiveness as a mutual process–and admittedly hard work– for the offender and the one offended, in which both agree to tasks and acts of reconciliation and healing.
“How many times do I have to forgive the brother or sister who offends me? As many as seven times?” “No, I tell you, not seven but seventy-seven times seven.” It’s not about calculations or keeping score. That is not what the kingdom of heaven, which is coming and now is, is about. If you are unable to forgive, at least turn it over to God, whose mercy and forgiveness are deeper and denser than anything you can imagine. UCC pastoral counsellor and seminary professor Flora Slossan Wuellner suggests imagining, in meditation, going with Jesus to the door of a room in which your offender waits. If you can’t go in, send Jesus to begin the process of healing and repentance. You can keep coming to this door, and either sending Jesus in by himself or going with him. You may never be ready to go in. Just leave it to Jesus.
Trust me, Jesus says. I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business, but that gives you a sense of the cost of God’s mercy. We can only entrust God with what mercy or forgiveness looks like for a Hitler, or an ISIS beheader, a child abuser, or a murderer.
There is no walling ourselves off from one another. “We do not live to ourselves,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die–whether we forgive or let God do the forgiving–we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?…Each of us will be accountable to God,” whose mercy is infinite and boundless. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark