Riding out the early stages of Hurricane Sandy thinking about ... forgiveness.
The catalyst for my thought was a thoughtful blog post written last week by Pete Enns. It is a subject with intense personal relevance to me, and highlights a nonnegotiable aspect of what it means to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.
In the so-called "Lord's Prayer," Jesus famously encourages his followers to ask, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt 6:12). In this he clearly models the 6th of the 18 Benedictions in the most foundational of Jewish prayers, the Shmoneh Esreh (Amidah); and, as most instinctively realize, he here follows Jewish precedent in defining sins/trespasses as spiritual debts to God — moral obligations owed to God that we have failed to meet, and for which, despite our inability to repay them, we remain responsible. For those of us who recite this petition on a daily or weekly basis, it is all too easy to gloss over the second, conditional clause, which implies rather clearly that one who stubbornly refuses to forgive others demonstrates thereby that he or she has failed to grasp or appropriate God's kingdom program implemented through Jesus Messiah — and hence can hardly expect God to answer our self-serving plea.
That this is the case is made crystal clear in a profound parable of Jesus recorded by Matthew in Matthew 18:21-35. According to the first evangelist, the parable arises out of a conversation between Jesus and Peter. The impetuous "rock" asks his master how many times he should forgive his brother, and suggests — no doubt with a self-congratulatory magnanimity, as many as seven times. Jesus, almost certainly alluding in a contrasting way to Lamech's murderous boast in Genesis 4:24, replies, "Not 7 times, but rather 77 times." Avoiding the perils of undue literalism and legalism, Jesus' point is quite clear. Forgiveness is to know no limits. Indeed, forgiveness must be co-extensive with what needs to be forgiven. The reason Jesus' disciples must show such unlimited forgiveness is illustrated in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant which follows.
The story is a famous and memorable one. The servant of a king reneges on a debt of 10,000 talents. Considering the fact that a talent was the equivalent of approximately 6000 denarii (the typical day's wage for a common laborer, cf. Matt 20:2), this debt would have taken 164,000 years to repay! One might chalk this up to typical Jesuanic (or even Matthean) hyperbole, but the point is an obvious one: the servant had incurred an illimitable, unpayable debt. Yet the king, out of "compassion" (splanchnistheis) for the servant, forgave him the whole thing. But when a fellow servant is unable to repay a comparably piddling debt of 100 denarii (about three months' wages, but only 1/1,000,000th of the amount the first servant had been forgiven), the forgiven servant callously rejects — for Greek students who may be reading, note the durative or iterative imperfect ouk ēthelen, indicating a sustained or repeated refusal — his fellow servant's plea for patience, throwing him into jail until the time when repayment was made. Other servants privy to the situation then reported back to the king, whose response is hardly surprising: he rescinds the forgiveness just as he had previously rescinded the unpayable debt, and sent him to the "torturers" (in that society, not a hypothetical scenario; according to the historian Josephus [Antiquities 15.289-90], Herod the Great utilized them) for what amounted to a life sentence. Particularly important is verse 33, where Jesus, in the mouth of the king, articulates the issue in terms of mercy (eleos): "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" Following the end of the story, Jesus provides the sting with a dire warning: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Jesus is well known for his articulation of the so-called "Golden Rule" in his Sermon on the Mount: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 7:12). In this parable, however, Jesus proposes an even more foundational imperative. As Klyne Snodgrass has summarized the point, "Do unto others as God has done to you" (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008] 72). According to Jesus, there is a necessary correlation between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of those who have wronged us. Failure to forgive will ultimately result in our exclusion from the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate and will come again to consummate.
Jesus makes this point clear at the outset by explicitly relating the story to the situation brought about by the inbreaking of the kingdom of God (see verse 23: "the kingdom of God has become like [hōmoiōthē]"). As in Isaiah 61, said by Jesus to be fulfilled in his ministry (Luke 4:16-21), the kingdom of God is described as the ultimate expression of the law of Jubilee prescribed in Leviticus 25. And so Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he expected his followers to live their lives according to jubilee principles. Failure to do so would result in consequences too horrific to contemplate. It thus appears once again that, contrary to the beliefs of so many "Evangelicals" in America, the proper and necessary response to the gospel of the kingdom is an acceptance, not merely of the benefits offered by Christ, but the demands he makes as well.
And this is very hard to do, human nature being as it is, self-serving and mired in sin. Every time a gruesome, unimaginable murder happens, the news reports focus on the victim's loved ones, who cry for "justice" to be meted out to the perpetrator(s). But it is not justice that they want; it is vengeance, something scripture tells us is the prerogative of God alone (Rom 12:19). (As an aside, the one instance in my knowledge when this was not the case involved the horrible murders of children at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, PA, in 2006, when the victims' relatives clearly manifested the spirit of Christ in their response). God promises, "I will repay," and we who belong to Christ can take heart that God can be taken at his word. We, on the other hand, if we have truly experienced the transforming effects of the kingdom of God, must be magnanimous, merciful, and forgiving. Why? Because we have been forgiven, and by doing so we can, in a small way, experience what our Lord must have experienced as he endured a violent, criminal death on our behalf on Calvary's hill.
As I said, this is very hard to do. Most of us have been hurt by our supposed brothers and/or sisters in the Lord — most often in trivial ways like having our feelings hurt by insensitive comments, but sometimes in life-altering or even career-destroying ways. As many who know me are aware, my professional "career" was derailed, at least temporarily, by what I consider an inexcusable betrayal by a man I considered one of my friends as well as a colleague. The fact that I even say this demonstrates that I have not, as yet, adequately fulfilled what my Lord demands of me. But work at it I must, if I am to be a disciple of the one who gave his life for me. God knows that the debt I owed him far surpasses any debt my fellow human beings could ever owe me. Soli Deo Gloria!