Tile: Forgiveness comes first
Texts: Matt 18:21-35
Date: September 11, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
How many times do I have to forgive? It’s a good question. After someone has wronged you again and again, at some point, don’t you have to be done with him or her? At some point, aren’t you justified in rejecting them, in giving up on them, for the sake of your own health, for the sake of your security, for the sake of your ability to go on with your life?
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21).
Jesus responds with a story, a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, a story about what God’s reign is like, about what God is like. I think the story exposes something hidden within Peter’s question. His first inclination is to think about how he has been wronged, to worry about who has sinned against him, to consider who he needs to forgive and how many times. His first inclination is to think of himself as a victim—the one who needs to forgive, not the one who needs to be forgiven: If my sister or brother sins against me, how much should I forgive?
With a parable, Jesus invites Peter into a larger world, one that’s bigger than just him. Jesus invites Peter to consider a world of forgiveness, the world of God, the kingdom of heaven. In God’s world, we find ourselves with the servant in the story, the one in prison, the one who begs for release from his debt, the one who ends up being forgiven by the king, forgiven a great debt, more than he could pay on his own.
Forgiveness comes first. We grow into our world through forgiveness—by our parents who catch us in our white lies as children, by siblings who we torment as we grow up, by friends who we hurt, by loved ones who we fail to love as we should. But we are forgiven; our transgressions are healed by their love for us, by their desire to be with us no matter what we do, to walk with us, to be our companions.
Forgiveness is a world we grow into, through daily graces, ordinary miracles of reconciliation, of reunion. To start where Peter starts, with his question about how many times to forgive, isn’t the right place to begin, because it forgets our debts to others; to start with Peter’s question is to forget the forgiveness that has birthed us into our world of right and wrong, and the forgiveness that sustains us in our relationships, in our friendships, in our humanness, which is bound up with our need to be with one another, to be social creatures, to communicate, to commune, even across differences.
The message of the gospel has everything to do with this movement of communion across boundaries, forgiveness across what seem to be insurmountable divides, for God chose to love us even while we were still sinners, while we were still enemies of God’s grace. “God demonstrates his love for us,” writes the apostle Paul, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Forgiveness is the healing love of God that opens us again to the possibility of communion, of being together, even while we persist in our conflicts. Forgiveness is a power that flows from the heart of God, that enables us to face our enemies, and to love them, like Jesus did on the cross, when his last words were, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
This is the point at which I want to start talking about what happened ten years ago, on September 11th. It was a moment of vengeance, and vengeance is a way of refusing the kingdom of heaven, a way of refusing God’s healing love. Vengeance is a power that opposes the reign of God in the world. Vengeance is the opposite of forgiveness. The people who hijacked the airplanes had their reasons for thinking that they had been wronged by the United States, so they attacked two sites of American dominion—the Pentagon, the place of military power, and the World Trade Towers, the place of global economic power.
These crimes of vengeance on September 11th were answered by president George W. Bush with a declaration of violence, a promise of revenge. That evening, the president spoke from the Oval Office, mixing together a call to mourn the loss of life with a call to revenge. He told us to remember, as he put it his address, the lives of “secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors,” the “thousands of lives [that] were suddenly ended.”
But instead of letting us remain in a posture of lament, of considering our debts to all the ordinary people who died, and the hundreds who sacrificed their lives to try to rescue people from those collapsing buildings; instead a posture of grief, of loss, of woundedness, of vulnerability, of unknowing, the president quickly invited us further into the cycle of vengeance. He said, “Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared…. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them…. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day…”
The day the towers went down I went to class; it was New Testament Greek. Only a few of us showed up for class. I have no idea why I went in the midst of such a crisis; I should have been with the rest of my classmates, watching the breaking news on television. (I guess I’ve always been a nerd.)
We sat in stunned silence. Then Karen Jobes, our professor, walked in. She read some passages from the bible and led us in a time of open prayer. I will always remember that, her invitation to pray: that when we don’t know what to do, when we don’t know how to think clearly, we sit in the moment and take time to pray, to express our confused thoughts to God.
I remember the angry prayer of my friend sitting next to me in class. As soon as he started praying, his open hands became tight fists and he clenched his jaw. He prayed down God’s vengeance on the terrorists—America’s enemies, our enemies, he said—and in his anger he committed to doing whatever it would take to track down the people who made this violence possible, and to kill them, in the name of justice, God’s justice.
This was the moment of the undoing of my faith, the collapse of my Christianity. I sat there, wanting to pray, wanting to join in my friend’s prayer, but I couldn’t. I just sat there. Even though it made sense with the version of Christianity I had learned growing up, something inside of me wouldn’t let me wish death upon the people who were responsible for those horrible crimes.
After our time of prayer, I was no longer sure what I believed about God. At the very least, I felt like I could not continue to call myself a Christian if it meant that I had to support people who thought they had to defend God’s justice through violence.
What saved my faith was the Mennonite story. A professor, who turned out to be very pastoral, told me the Anabaptist way of nonviolence, of choosing to die at the hands of enemies, like Jesus, instead of killing them.
And that’s how I ended up here, with you, Mennonites, people committed to the way of Jesus, the way of peace in the midst of a world at war. In a country like this one, where Christianity is so tied to violence and revenge, I don’t know if I could continue to call myself a Christian if I couldn’t also say that I was a Mennonite, a member of a historic peace church, with a long tradition of people refusing to support violence, even when that commitment has proved costly, when it has meant losing your own life and the lives of loved ones.
At the heart of this commitment to peace is forgiveness—an openness to forgive enemies, not kill them, and a willingness to die as we try to offer grace. So, Peter is more right than George W. Bush, and all the others who have followed Bush along the path of vengeance. Peter, in the story from Matthew’s Gospel, asks about how many times he needs to forgive; he doesn’t ask Jesus about what would justify him in seeking revenge.
Yet Jesus also opens up to Peter, and to us, a world of forgiveness that is much bigger than us, much bigger than our attempts to deal with the people who have wronged us. In his parable, Jesus invites us into the kingdom of heaven, where we first consider all the ways we have been sustained by forgiveness, where we live a life of gratitude for the forgiveness we have already received. Our lives are always already marked by grace—the grace of God and the grace of others, people who are willing to stay with us, even in the midst of conflict, even as we sin against them, people who don’t let our debts get in the way of our relationships.
This is what the servant fails to learn in the parable. He fails to take seriously how an act of forgiveness has given him life, how the forgiveness of the king has restored his humanity, his ability to be with his loved ones outside of prison. This servant refuses to let the king’s forgiveness flow through his life. As soon as the servant is released from prison, he finds another servant who owes him a much smaller debt. “Seizing him by the throat,” it says, “he said, ‘Pay what you own.’ Then his fellow servant 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” (vv. 28-30).
When the king finds out about what his forgiven servant had done, the king reinstates the debt and sends him back to prison. The servant has shown that he doesn’t belong with the way of forgiveness, the way of the kingdom of heaven. He refused to let the king’s forgiveness flow through him and transform his relationship with his fellow servant. Instead, he throws the man who owes him a small debt into prison, away from him, to a place where he no longer has to see his face, to look at him, to relate to him, to work out their conflict. This is the way of vengeance, this refusal: to get rid of the people who sin against you, to banish them, to refuse to relate to one another, to refuse to be human together.
Becoming human together is what I think the church is all about: to find ourselves drawn into communion, into communion with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one who is truly human, as it says in the Creed; the one whose forgiveness flows through us, sustaining us, and leading us to find ways to ask for forgiveness, to be for forgiveness, which is how we begin to disentagle our lives form the desire for vengeance, the desire for the blood of our enemies.
 George W. Bush, “9/11 Address to the Nation,” Sept 11, 2001, from the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., available at www.americanrhetoric.com.