Transformative Forgiveness - Matthew 18: 21-35
Today is Rally Day, the traditional kickoff to the Sunday School year. It’s different this year. A lot of things are different this year. Both kids and adults are living through something none of us has experienced before. In a time like this it’s good to spend time finding our roots, doing something grounding like worshipping God together. It’s good to be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness. It’s good to remember that we are living in the light of God and no matter how confusing or chaotic this life gets, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
We heard two powerful passages this morning. In the Old Testament reading we heard the conclusion of the Joseph story. When he was a boy Joseph was the favorite son of his father Jacob. You may remember, Jacob gave him the amazing technicolor dreamcoat. His older brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Years later after all kind of adventures in Egypt, Joseph ends up becoming a high official in Pharaoh’s court. Then his brothers came in search of food because there was a famine in their land. Joseph tests his brothers and eventually reveals that he is their brother Joseph and the whole family moves to Egypt. And now in the final chapter of Genesis, their father Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers think that maybe Joseph was nice to them while their father was alive but now is the time he’s gonna get them back. But Joseph reassures them that he’s already forgiven them and he has no intention of taking revenge. He then says, “What you intended for harm, God intended for good”. Some suggest this closing lesson of Genesis provides the lens through which we should read the entire Bible: God will use even sin, suffering, and human bad intentions to bring about good. It’s not that God wants us to intend harm on one another, of course God would prefer us to intend good. But God will work even through sin and suffering and evil to bring about God’s plan for the world. Look no further than the crucifixion of Jesus to see something humans meant for harm that God used for good.
And of course, the obvious connection to the Gospel reading here is forgiveness. Because in learning forgiveness we can take part in God’s mission of the reconciliation of the world. Forgiveness is how God is able to use our bad intentions for good. Without forgiveness, sin would get the last word. But because of forgiveness God brings about God’s will for a world filled with bad intentions.
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable about one man who is forgiven a very large debt and then turns around and instead of forgiving someone who owed him a little bit, makes that man go to prison! Then Jesus says the other characters of the story report this to the lord who had forgiven the large debt and the lord throws the unforgiving man into prison himself. This story reflects a lot of things about human nature, mercy and forgiveness, selfishness and greed, and the social realities of the world we live in.
In this parable Jesus uses financial debt as a metaphor for sin. Some suggest this parable may also be encouraging Jesus’ followers to literally forgive each other financial debt as well as their wrongdoings. Jesus was very conscience of the social and economic inequalities of his day, as was every peasant Jew in first century Palestine. He was raised in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who called out massive inequality and injustice in ancient Israel, and like them Jesus was very focused on caring for the poor and outcasts of society. So we shouldn’t just gloss over the use of debt as a metaphor here. We need to remember Jesus’ context, and reflect on our context. We also live in a world of massive inequality and should strive to forgive the debt of the poor. Forgiving the debt of third world countries, for example, would go a long way in establishing a more just world. Recognizing that American young adults are both the most educated and most in debt generation in US history [with 52% of young adults age 18-29 living with their parents, the highest rate since the Great Depression] should be a clear indication that something has gone awry with the system. As followers of Jesus we are called to imagine a better way.
Jesus also uses prison as an illustration in this parable. This should also strike us as more than just a metaphor. It was a brutal reality for his first disciples, and a punitive justice system continues to plague our society today. In a country with less than 5% of the world’s population yet nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, we have some soul searching to do when it comes to our criminal justice system. As Christians it’s important to remember we called to care for those in prison too and for us to learn about these issues, and to follow God’s call to create positive change in the world.
This past week in his daily email meditations Richard Rohr focused on the theme of restorative justice. He compared various justice systems, from indigenous peoples who focused on reconciliation and healing to our current system which is more of an eye-for-an-eye punitive justice system. Restorative justice is justice motivated by forgiveness rather than revenge. Imagine a world where forgiveness and healing were our primary focus when dealing with people who commit crimes. Where instead of the focus being on punishing criminals we focused on healing them. That would take a forgiving society that takes Jesus seriously.
And while at first glance this parable may be thought of as demonstrating punitive justice to the unforgiving servant, it’s important to remember that prison is a metaphor in this parable. And as probably everyone here knows, the pain of unforgiveness is its own prison. If receiving love and forgiveness doesn’t transform you to share what you’ve first received, unfortunately the next step for you is usually suffering and pain. That’s what this parable is saying to us. The man who was forgiven his debt obviously wasn’t transformed by that forgiveness. He was still living in the prison of his own unforgiveness.
God’s forgiveness should transform us into being forgiving persons ourselves. If that transformation doesn’t take place then we’re still stuck in that same old prison. And it may not be just other people we need to forgive. Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves, or life, or God. Being in a prison of not forgiving God or not forgiving life or not forgiving yourself can be a terrible way to live. One way of putting it is: “Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different past.” Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different past. It doesn’t mean we need to be happy with everything that’s happened to us; it just means we fully accept reality and stop wishing for a different past. It’s a powerful way to look at forgiveness, and a it’s powerful way to live your life.
The good news in all this is that God forgives us, and that that forgiveness is healing, that forgiveness is transformative. Understanding what it means to be forgiven is truly liberating. We see our mistakes as learning experiences and live a life of learning and curiosity rather than of fear and anxiety.
So this Sunday School year, I invite kids and adults to seek to live a life in tune with the divine flow of the universe. Forgive the past. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Forgive life for not being the way you want it to be; and instead of resisting life, dive into the reality of what life actually is and practice being comfortable there.
Thanks be to God for the forgiveness we have in Christ. Thanks be to God for the forgiveness which transforms us into forgiving people. And thanks to be God for allowing us to join the mission of sharing that forgiveness with the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.