Forgiving When All We Want is Vengeance

We are inundated with words today, and I suspect mine won’t add much to the mix.  These are the words I spoke this morning to my congregation as I reflected on the Gospel assigned this week—Matthew 18:21-35.  Once again providence shows in the readings assigned for the day.

Proper 19 Year A—Matthew 18:21-35 

            On that glorious Tuesday morning 10 years, I walked from my apartment to the Divinity School.  It was my second full week of studies as a new seminarian—I had left the corporate hi-tech world and was eager to be on my way toward my training to become a priest.  After saying Morning Prayer with classmates and sharing a cup of coffee with them, I headed off to an 8:30 am preaching class.  While I soaked up pearls of wisdom on how to bring the good news of Christ to a hurting world, four planes were hijacked, and three of them had been intentionally crashed.  I heard the news from some other students while checking email in the library, and I quickly scanned headlines on a news site to see if it was true.

I rushed back to my apartment, and I turned on NBC just as the South Tower fell.  I called family members not quite knowing what to say other than, “Are you watching TV?”  I watched in dismay as New Yorkers covered in that white dust ran from the horrific epicenter.  I waited as best I could for Melissa to return from her day of teaching, and when she came home I listened to her tell of the many students there in Southern Connecticut who called parents and others to learn the fate of loved ones.  I remember climbing into bed that night, holding tight to Melissa and praying that we would be safe, safe in this newly shattered world for us.

It impacted my preaching class significantly.  Fellow students in the weeks that followed preached at length about how our world had changed forever.  Innocence was lost.  Some weighed the demands for justice with a call for peace.  A few mentioned the homemade signs that had popped up around New Haven:  Nuke ‘Em, read one of the placards that I remember.  We heard about the ways we as Americans had let go of the divisiveness that appeared during the 2000 presidential election and how neighbors truly became neighbors.  Most of all, we wrestled with how to think theologically about September 11th.

You know what followed, of course.  The loss of nearly 3000 people on that day, stories of bravery and heroism, images of people rejoicing in Afghanistan, the Afghan War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq, the hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, the forming of Homeland Security, the capture of Sadaam Hussein, water boarding, airport screening, the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, terror threat level Orange, the death of bin Laden, images of Americans rejoicing, and the loss of even more life: over 6000 American troops, hundreds of international troops from coalition forces, and over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians, never mind those maimed bodily or emotionally.

What we have learned most of all, I suspect, is that violence begets violence, which continues on and on like a never-ending game of ping pong.  We cite Just War and Self Protection, as do those labeled as America’s enemies, and the cycle never really ends.

We are justified, to be sure.  When we have been wronged, we long for retribution, for justice to be handed down.  You may remember that Presidential debate in the fall of 1988, when former Governor Dukakis was asked if his wife were brutally harmed would he want to enforce the death penalty.  He gave some lame answer, dodging the question entirely, when he should have answered honestly: “Absolutely!”  If he had, he could have gone on to say, “And I am glad that I don’t have that power, trusting in the courts and the rule of the commonwealth, recognizing that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to make that decision.  I believe that death is not the answer.”  But he didn’t, and he sounded so shallow and hollow because of it.

But we desire justice; many of us instinctively want to throttle the one who harmed us.  Whether through the attacks of September 11th and its aftermath for which some here today may still be impacted, or maybe some other personal tragedy—a personal 9/11—that has turned your world upside down.  The infidelity of a spouse or abuse experienced in your life or the life of someone you love.  The constant belittling by a boss or co-worker.  The bullying experienced on a playground so long ago.  The betrayal of a close friend.  Whatever the tragedy, our initial response is that we want for things to be made right.

So when Jesus tells us that we need to be forgiving, we are right there with Peter.  How many times, Lord?  If we are wronged by someone, what’s the upper limit?  Two times?  Three?  Seven?  Surely not more than seven times.  “Seventy-seven times,” he says, “Or seventy times seven” in the ambiguous Greek.  In other words, “Too many to keep track of.”  Just forgive.  Vengeance belongs to God, we are reminded.  It is not up to us.  Forgive.

Before Peter or we can even respond with a “But, but…” Jesus tells a story.  A servant owed his lord an insane amount of money, all of his yearly wages for the next 150,000 years.  He would never, ever be able to pay it back.  Ever.  And the lord demands restitution.  Now.  And seeing that the slave can’t repay, the lord demands that he be sold, and his wife and kids as well.  The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

He can’t, of course.  If it were today’s money, and assuming this person made only $25,000 a year, we’re talking 3 billion 750 thousand dollars.  The lord looks down on him and has compassion.  “Okay,” he says, “you’re forgiven.  All of it.  You don’t owe me a penny.”

The slave can’t believe his lucky stars and goes out on his way with that huge load removed from his back.  And the first person he runs into is a friend of his who borrowed some money from him.  A little under 10 grand, about the wages he’d make working for 4 and half months.  The debt-free slave grabs him by the neck and demands his money. The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

Nothing doing.  There’s no mercy this time.  Even though this debt might be in reach in a few years time with some good budgeting, the slave is merciless to his friend.  He throws him into prison so he can squeeze every last cent out of him.

When the lord hears what has happened, he is stunned and furious and calls the first slave to him.  “You owed me nearly $4 billion and I forgave you, and this other slave owed you $10 grand and you couldn’t show mercy?” So he reneges on his debt forgiveness and tosses that slave in jail.  “So it is with my father if you don’t forgive a brother or sister,” Jesus tells us.

In other words, Jesus says to Peter and us, you may think that when someone wrongs you that there is a substantial debt owed to you.  You may want to harm that person, or torture them, or make them pay for what they did.  But you owe me even more.   You owe me for the ways in which you have been unfaithful to me.  It’s more than you could imagine.  It would take hundreds of years to repay.  And I forgive you.  No strings attached; I forgive all the ways that you have wronged me.

And then that line at the end, if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, then God shackles us.  Actually, I think, God doesn’t even need to do it to us, we shackle ourselves.  I’ve seen it first hand.  Those who cannot forgive the one who wronged them.  They live with bitterness and cynicism.  They carry around this desire for revenge, for restitution and the life is being sucked right out of them.  The anger and hurt and depression pushes others away, and creates a living hell for them.  When we don’t forgive, we slowly die to the life we once had and never find peace again.

“But Jesus,” we say, “you don’t understand.  Innocence was lost.  Lives taken.  My childhood destroyed.  My marriage made a mockery.  You just don’t get it.”  And he looks down at us from that bloodied cross in silence.  Then looking toward heaven he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”