The Pastor’s Pen – September 17, 2017

IMG_1324…forgiven, and forgiving

September 17, 2017

Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church 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.  “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, 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.  But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.  When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then 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.”

While at first this scripture seems like a story of the proper behavior we should all exercise when it comes to forgiving one another, and reminds us of how God may be upset with us from time to time and act as a ‘stern disciplinary father’ for our misdeeds, I personally think it might be fully missing the point to see this passage in this way only.

I think that indeed our passage is a story and does have a message to teach us, but it is not a story predicated on this notion of crime and punishment.  It is not about positioning ourselves in a place where we enjoy the love and favor of God because of our innocence and good behavior, nor is it about a God waiting and lurking out there always with an eye to how we are behaving, just waiting to pounce on us and punish us severely every time we do not do or say the right thing.

For we all are sinful in that we act in ways that are self-centered all the time…and largely due to our inherited human nature…a nature that was originally based on a very real need for self-preservation.  We were all hard-wired from the very beginning of the human story when such behavior was necessary for our survival.  But that is no longer the case in this day and age, we have moved past that as Jesus came to teach us.  Jesus’ ministry taught that ways rooted in violence along with power-based living strategies were not in fact the way of our loving God…teaching rather that the opposite, that the way of love and non-violence was in fact the true desire and aim of God.

Jesus’ teachings emphasized over and over that God, the one he called ‘Abba’ or ‘Father’ was in fact only and fully a God of love, and not one of wrathful and seeming unforgiving judgement.  Jesus came teaching of the all-forgiving love of God, of the unconditional love offered to each one of us regardless of the degree to which we may have strayed from being loving and compassionate towards one another.

And honestly, the concept of a God who is ‘only loving’ rather than judgmental might be more difficult to grasp, for a judgmental and wrathful God seems easier to understand and to follow if we are merely seeking to stay on God’s good side.  You see, it is far easier to see the world in black and white and to pick a side on which to dwell…but that is not the call we are hearing deep within.  Truly imitating a God who only loves, means that our behavior must also be the same…and that is seldom an easy task.  Unfortunately I believe it is far easier to be ‘good’ in the eyes of our culture than it is to be holy in the eyes of God.  The God of love, who calls us to a life of extending this unconditional love, is far more difficult to follow than just a few ‘proper’ social rules and expectations.

I would propose that today’s story is not so much about how well we forgive one another, although that element is surely there, but rather one that seeks to teach us that being right with God has everything to do with how much we each have already been forgiven, and how that knowledge must inform our love for one another.  For I think that many if not most people within the center of our culture are largely unaware of their own personal sin, weakness, or complicity in sinful structures, and therefore have no idea of the degree to which they have been loved and forgiven by God in spite of that history.

There is an incredible humility to be found in knowing who you truly are in relationship to God…in knowing and accepting the ‘you ‘ that stands exposed before our loving God.  And there is also an incredible and liberating freedom and blessing that results from the awareness of the Lord’s full and complete as-you-are acceptance and love of you as well.

This passage, along with many others begins to open up to us the notion of the holy scriptures as a collection of stories for us to learn from.  It is a narrative or story-telling passage meant to convey meaning and is not intended to be read as a literal or historical depiction as to the nature of God.   It is cast in such a way as to provide multiple layers of meaning which are accessible to the reader in different ways at different times of life making it truly a living word able to speak a depth of understanding into an individual life.

This story – read from a literary distance as the parable that it is, speaks clearly to our need to understand the forgiveness we each have received…a forgiveness  which in and of itself results in an absolute inability for any of us to then turn and judge another.  As the one first forgiven in our scripture story was not allowed to continue on in unforgiving and unloving ways, so too are we not able as well.  Knowing the degree to which we have been forgiven and are still accepted causes within us an inability to be less than totally forgiving of another.  If we ourselves were and are forgiven, if we were released from all of our debts and obligations which were the result of our own weaknesses in loving, our own miss-steps and our own frequent and willful self-separations from God, then we cannot hold another in contempt for the same things.  We too must imitate our God in being first to forgive, first to seek reconciliation of relationships, and first to stand in defense of those wrongly accused.

And at some point this comes back around to how it is we truly view our God.  If in fact we see our God as a God of love, but also as one who is perpetually locked in battle with a strong adversary, wholly separate from humanity, who is forever prowling around and seeking to destroy us…

…and if that understanding forces us to view God as locked in angry combat and capable of wrathful destruction of any and all who oppose him…

…then our God is a violent and tempestuous God and this passage must be read indeed as a cautionary tale, as one in which wrong choices on our part can and probably will lead to undesirable and perhaps eternal consequences.

However, if God is in fact overall and fully and completely a God of love and if our God loves with a love that truly is unconditional and is not lessened by human weakness or sinfulness…

…and if evil and sinfulness in fact find their primary genesis in the human heart itself without need of another heavenly negative force…

…and if God forgives us and loves us so that he was willing to die on a cross that our eyes might finally be opened to the depth of love he holds for each one of us…

…then we just may find ourselves at a point where we need to consider that our old understanding of a conditionally loving and wrathful God is simply wrong.  We may need to let go of the notion which put us on the ‘good side’ with our God and puts all others who do not believe or behave as we do on the ‘bad side’ and in danger of suffering eternal condemnation.

And if indeed we can find a way to let go of that ‘punishing and wrath-filled’ notion of God for just a minute and instead begin to see our God as one who accepts all with an equal and total love…

…if we can find our way as Christians to being a part of the one human family created in the image of God…

…if we can look for and find an understanding of God that truly makes room for everyone in love including each one of us fully forgiven…

…then we will find ourselves in a strange new place…

For we have so long relied upon an us/them view of and relationship with the rest of humanity.  We are so used to defining ourselves as separate from someone else, that coming to know God as one ‘God for all of humanity’ whose love and acceptance is extended equally to all, may be hard to grasp.

And I say this may be a strange place for without being able to stand in judgement of another I think we just may lose a lot of our structure and self-definition.  In other words, if we truly love God, and if we truly believe that our God is all-loving and all-forgiving, and if we seek to follow the words of Jesus when he told us to love one another as he loved us…

…if we allow ourselves to let go of the idea that God can somehow be both loving and apparently hateful, vengeful, wrathful, and petty all at the same time…

…then we are forced to change our perception of God and instead to dare to imagine a God truly, completely, and only of love…

Thereby giving up once and for all on this deeply harmful and injurious notion of a wrathful God who is on our side alone and ready to vanquish all our enemies, causing us to let go of our habit of judging another with the anger we imagine God would have had.

If we do all this then we will find ourselves in a brave new world…a world where compassion and love rather than judgement and violence will guide our thoughts and our actions…a world where godly love is the first and primary consideration, and injustice and inequality become things of a sinful past.

In short, as the family human, as humanity created in the multi-faceted image of God, as humanity all deeply in need of forgiveness and all called to follow after and seek the one God of love (by whatever name people have learned to call God), we are all on the same side, all on the side of desperately needing, but wholly unworthy of the grace that is so freely offered to all of God’s children…an unconditional grace born of love and affection.

If we can truly and finally leave the place of judgement, of defining ourselves by the judgements we cast on one another, perhaps then we may begin to find the way to open the door to truly accepting others around us as fellow sojourners, but even more so as children equally loved by God regardless of what we perceive to be their belief correctness or their level of belief maturity, or even in cases in which there appears to be an absence of belief.

If we can find our way to seeing every ‘other’ as one who in the eyes of God is a brother or a sister…if we can see every man, every woman, every Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or follower of Hindu as kin…

…perhaps then we may come to see that every person whose belief may be different than ours but whose sacred pursuit is still the way of love and peace is truly a fellow seeker after God.  Truly we must find the grace to love with as much energy and vigor, with as much conviction and single-mindedness…as we once judged…

So when I read this story of the one who was greatly forgiven and then in turn refused to forgive another who owed far less, I hear the Lord calling us first, to know who we are and second, to follow him exactly in all of his ways of love and forgiveness.

For unless you know the degree to which you are forgiven and loved in the same moment…

unless you ‘know that you know’ that God holds us each in forgiving and unconditional love regardless of how often we misstep, or how much we blindly remain in a place of harming others by any of our thoughts, beliefs, or actions…unless you know and understand this, you will not be able to extend that same unconditional love and forgiveness to another.

Oh Lord, let us turn away from any tendency we may have to be those who were once forgiven, but then turned and refused to forgive another…

…amen

 

photo credit: Margaret Wilder

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s