Proper 19, Year A
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“I just can’t do it. I know that Jesus tells us to forgive, but I just can’t!” That is the anguished confession that I hear most often as a priest. And I understand. Many years ago, I remember sitting in the adult ed circle at church and listening to the group talk about the importance of forgiveness. I was a young mother in the process of a painful divorce. I was seething with bitterness and resentment and anger. I was praying every day for my husband to fall into a deep, dark hole from which he would never emerge to bother me or my children again. Forgive him? There was no way. “I just can’t do it,” I confessed to the group, deeply ashamed at my lack of faith and Christian love. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it.”
Our automatic response as humans is to thirst for “justice” in the face of wrongdoing. In other words, we want the guilty to pay for their crimes. Recent brain research has shown how thoughts of revenge against those who have wronged us light up pleasure pathways in our brains. Our brains actually reward us for seeking vengeance! In today’s Gospel, the slave who has just been forgiven a million dollar debt still can’t stomach that he hasn’t been paid the paltry sum that his fellow slave owes him, and so he forgets his own tenuous position and goes after the poor guy. Then the other slaves can’t stand to see him act in a way that they feel is unjust. So they run and alert the king in order to get him in trouble. In our world, the justice we seek is usually “retributive.” We want retribution; we want pay-back. Evil must be punished, by us or by God, or the world becomes in our minds an unfair, meaningless place. When we go after vengeance, we say to ourselves, “you did me wrong, so I must do you wrong back; however, my wrong to you will be right because you did it first and I am only seeking justice.” And our brains reward us, as if we had just won a prize.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we are to sacrifice the pleasure of rejoicing over the downfall of our enemy. Instead, we are to offer unending mercy to our fellow human beings when they ask to be forgiven. For Jesus, forgiveness is not opposed to justice. Rather, it is related to another kind of justice than our “retributive justice.” Jesus is operating out of God’s “restorative justice,” the kind of justice that repairs relationships through love. A compassionate God who is constantly pouring out love onto all of God’s beloved creatures, is a God who is constantly repairing, cleansing, and starting over in God’s relationships with us. God’s forgiveness is beyond the logic of tit for tat; it is a pure gift, a gift of “boundless, radical, overflowing, excessive, incomprehensible love.” We see God’s restoring love in Jesus, God’s Son. When Jesus stops the stoning of the woman taken in adultery, for example, he is showing us restorative justice. He offers her unmerited forgiveness. He stops others from judging her. He gives her a chance for reconciliation and the restoration of relationship with God. When Jesus hangs dying on the cross and says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” rather than, “Father, make them pay for this,” then even his death becomes a sign of God’s restorative justice, a sign that we are to live out in our own relationships. As God pours life-changing mercy upon us, so we too pour out life-changing mercy upon others. We actually borrow this biblical language of restoration in our St. Thomas mission statement. We proclaim that we want to “restore” all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. The first painful step in restoration is forgiveness.
There is a wonderful documentary on forgiveness that I recommend to all of you. By Martin Doblmeier, it is called “The Power of Forgiveness” and can be viewed for free on Amazon Prime. This documentary is like today’s parable in that it does not try to lecture us or shame us into forgiving. Like our parable, it bypasses our revenge-fueled brains and goes straight into our hearts through the power of story. The documentary is full of real-life stories about people who have tried to forgive.
The story that moved me the most shows us how forgiveness flows into God’s restorative justice. Azim Khamisa is a wealthy international investment banker and a devout Sufi Muslim. Ples Felix is an African-American Baptist from the projects in California. One night, Felix’s 14-year-old grandson Tony fatally shot Khamisa’s only son when he delivered a pizza to Tony and his friends. Tony, who had been abandoned by both parents at a young age, was caught up in a hopeless life of gangs and drugs. Now he had killed a promising young man and was sitting in jail for a senseless, brutal crime. As you can imagine, Khamisa was devastated over his son Tariq’s death and even contemplated suicide. And yet his religion asked him to forgive. Despite his great anguish, he was somehow able to reach out to Felix, Tony’s grandfather and guardian. Both of our beloved children have been lost, he said. One to death and one to prison. We need to stick together. Eventually, Khamisa was even able to go into the prison and to meet young Tony, face to face. When the boy expressed remorse, Khamisa forgave him for murdering his only child. In turn, Tony was then able to forgive his parents for his abandonment and to begin to heal from the wounds that had alienated him from society. Khamisa promised to give Tony a job when he is eventually released from prison. Today, Khamisa and Felix, still friends, work together in the schools through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to stop other children from killing children.
As I listened to this story, it was impossible for me to tell which one of these men was being forgiven the greatest debt. Crushing injustice was everywhere. Tony and Felix, crushed under the injustice of poverty and racism. Azim, crushed under the injustice of losing his only son. Tariq, crushed under the injustice of an unmerited death. For God, who loves them all, there is only forgiveness. There is only the joy of burdens lifted and the gift of freedom bestowed. Who are we to judge which sin should be forgiven? All that matters is that the forgiveness that flows from God continues to flow into the world. Who are we to block God’s forgiving power? Who are we to tattle to the King? Forgiveness opens the door to restoration and to life. Who are we to keep that door closed?
And yet, it is difficult to forgive. In the film, the only story in which forgiveness was not achieved was the story of several women who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11. You might think that the women’s continued anger was directed toward the terrorists who caused the disaster, but that wasn’t the problem for them. The people whom they couldn’t forgive were the US authorities who, in their hurry to clean up Ground Zero, shoveled the ruins of the towers, along with the unidentified remains of their loved ones, off to a distant landfill. “They put my son in the garbage!” cried the mother of one of the lost firefighters as she wandered the landfill picking up pieces of bone and twisted metal. “That I cannot forgive.” Somehow, that flat, barren landfill seemed even more desolate to me than the image of the collapsed towers. Broken lives, swept out of sight. Women picking angrily over the discarded scraps of tragedy. God’s forgiveness blocked by expediency. God’s image in those loved ones ignored. That landfill was as desolate as my soul when I was unable to forgive my husband.
In the broken, war-scarred city of Beirut, Lebanon, some wise people recently constructed a “garden of forgiveness.” The garden is an oasis of green in between bullet-marked buildings. Two of the angry 911 relatives from New York traveled all the way to Lebanon in order to bury photos of their lost loved ones in this garden. “Now at least they have a place,” one mother said. The bereaved were able to make a journey, a long and difficult journey, to bury these fallen heroes of 911 in a place of forgiveness. Healing could begin.
Forgiveness is not something that we can control or manufacture. It takes time. It requires a journey. It is a gift from God that we begin to receive when we gather the courage to cherish even what is broken in others and in ourselves, rather than making sure that it is swept away to the nearest garbage dump.