The Challenge of Forgiveness

091320 Pentecost 15 

Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35


Today’s texts about forgiveness were especially difficult to engage this year. It’s always hard to let go of the hurt when someone mistreats us. But how do we practice seven-times-seventy forgiveness when the very foundation of our nation is being threatened by people who know better? When police are killing blacks in frightening numbers and protestors are blamed for violence; when the U.S. is the world leader in COVID cases because the president decided to play cheerleader rather than coach; when large groups of Americans are refusing to accept public health guidelines to protect people’s health; when the justice system is becoming a personal tool for the president, and landlords are on the verge of evicting renters? I find myself needing to count to seventy times seven to just keep my heart from beating out of my chest. I need to count even higher to forgive it. 

With that intensity in mind, I wrestled with the texts to find handles that permit forgiveness in this setting. Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, social justice activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, came to the rescue the other day with a handle when he wrote about proximity to one’s neighbor. I discovered in Romans and Matthew that the same handle can be used with another key relationship: proximity to God. Paul in Romans grounds the practice of forgiveness in the truth that we belong to God. Jesus in Matthew states, should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? The two proximities – to neighbor and to God – complete Jesus’ summary of the law: love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself

But it’s not just knowing the law; we must immerse ourselves in those loves. Through immersion we gain proximity with God, neighbor, and even ourselves. Stevenson described his own immersion into proximity to his neighbor through a relationship with an inmate named Henry on death row. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness. Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own… Proximity has taught me that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. That conversation changed his whole understanding of justice: that it is distance—physical, social, and spiritual—that allows injustice to flourish. Proximity to one’s neighbor is what turns our hearts towards love and restorative justice. 

Immersion is a degree of proximity that evokes our baptism. A sacrament is an external sign of an internal reality. Water is the external sign, and water is wet. So, when we immerse ourselves in water, we get wet. When we’re immersed in God’s forgiving grace, we drip with grace. When we are immersed in proximity to God, our hearts are turned toward forgiving others. When we immerse ourselves in proximity to neighbor, our hearts are turned toward love and restorative justice. Forgiving grace will then flow from us to our neighbor. So, why doesn’t that happen more often? Jesus’ parable and the Lord’s prayer suggest that maybe it’s because we haven’t really immersed ourselves in God’s forgiveness, even if we believe in it. 

Immersion isn’t the same as belief. Forgiving others is nearly impossible without being immersed in God’s forgiveness, or as Romans puts it, our sense of belonging to God. Without God in the picture, this makes no sense. We must immerse ourselves over and over again in the experience of God forgiving us to practice forgiveness in today’s world. In Bryan Stevenson’s words, each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I need to hear that about the perpetrators of today’s evils. It helps to be reminded that I am more than the worst thing I’ve ever done. Knowing God’s forgiveness with the five senses of our bodies can convince us of that. 

Proximity to God connects to proximity to neighbor by seeking God in ourselves and in the other person. If we are all God’s image, God is in me and in my neighbor. Seeking God in both focuses our gaze in the best, not the worst, of each of us. Maybe that’s what Paul means when he writes, “It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall.” We must be true to our deepest selves because we belong to and are rooted in God. The roots wrap the stones in the soil of each person’s life. If we’re not true to what we know, we will fall. When we fail to immerse ourselves in God and neighbor, we set ourselves up for refusing to forgive, and that locks us into a torturous circle. We seal ourselves off from the very experience of forgiveness. 

It’s hard to believe God can forgive endlessly – seventy times seven. Surely, we wouldn’t. We think that if we forgive too easily, our children, spouses, friends, enemies will walk all over us. We prefer to quantify it like Peter. “I’ll forgive, maybe once, or if they forgive me first, or if there is some promise of change, or if they don’t do it again, or if they acknowledge their sin.” But that tactic leads to a tortured soul. The weight of unforgiven hurt bends and burdens us. If we wish to exempt ourselves from Jesus’ law of love and forgiveness; if we embrace vengeance and retribution as most true and reliable, then that’s what we are left with. Hell is not so much God’s punishment as the result that our punishment of each other demands. That hell is what the debtor in Jesus’ parable experienced.

Nikos Kazantzakis tells a story of an elderly monk he met on Mount Athos. Kazantzakis, young and full of curiosity, asked this monk: “Do you still wrestle with the devil?” “No,” replied the old monk, “I used to, when I was younger, but now I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me.” “So,” Kazantzakis said, “your life is easy then? No more big struggles.” “Oh, no!” replied the old man, “now it’s worse. Now I wrestle with God!” “You wrestle with God,” replied Kazantzakis, rather surprised, “and you hope to win?” “No,” said the old monk, “I wrestle with God and I hope to lose!”

There comes a point in life when our major spiritual struggle is no longer with the fact that we’re weak and need God’s forgiveness, but rather with the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is overly-lavish, unmerited, and especially that it goes out so indiscriminately. God’s lavish love and forgiveness apply equally to those have worked hard and to those who haven’t, to those who have been faithful for a long time and to those who jumped on-board at the last minute, to those who wear masks and to those who do not, to the police and to the protestors. We may feel like we need to forgive God for being so lavish with people who have done so much harm. Only when we consciously immerse ourselves in, and surrender to, that overly-lavish forgiveness will we even begin to be able to forgive those we don’t want to forgive.

The invitation I hear through Bryan Stevenson’s image of proximity is to dare to step out of my comfort zone, my safe place, and get close to people whose stories would scandalize me if others told them to me; but which draw me closer to the person when I hear it up close. In the practice of prayer and confession, I can draw closer to God and sense the depth of mercy that forgives my own scandalous story.


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