Summary: Jesus is in the tradition of the OT when he commands us to forgive without limit; if we do not, we imperil our immortal souls
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Course
September 11, 2011
The three precious verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read on this Sunday come and go so quickly that we might miss their import entirely. “None of us lives for himself, and none of us dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. . .whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” The critical words here, which our lectionary translates “for himself” and “for the Lord’s,” are in the dative case in Greek and Latin. The word “dative” suggests the action of giving. What we should understand is that Paul is telling us that we are not gifts for ourselves. Because God has freely and generously given us Jesus as our Savior, we are in turn gifts for the Lord. We are called to live as gifts to the Lord, and to each other. Our every action, our every decision, must be done or made in reference to our existence as God’s beloved property–yes, God’s beloved children.
What is the nature of that gift? Jesus ben Sira, writing this Wisdom of Sirach not long before the time of Christ, puts it starkly. Because of the covenant God made with humans, we may not take revenge on our neighbor. It is, ben Sira tells us, the worst of crimes–a shiqquwts, an abomination. Jesus ben Joseph, our Lord and Savior, does not soften this teaching. What ben Sira saw only in a fog, Jesus makes explicit. The One who owns us, whose children and servants we are, has forgiven us a great debt. Our translation doesn’t really get explicit, but the Greek does. The debt this slave owed his master was 10,000 talents. Each talent of gold had a weight of perhaps 170 kg, so at last week’s spot price, the debt was, in round numbers, $23 billion. And this patsy, this really weird master, forgave the entire twenty-three billion dollars because he felt sorry for the slave. Sorry slave, indeed. This jerk then went out and ran into his fellow slave, who owed him a hundred days wages, something like $5,600 at minimum wage. Ignoring the man’s plea for more time, he has him thrown into debtors’ prison, so he could get his wretched pound of flesh. And he thought that would be the end.
But you don’t keep betrayals like that secret in any size household, so the master found out and did the same to the wicked servant. Do you think that this wretch’s pleas from prison to his few friends would net the $23 billion to repay? Not twenty-three cents, as heartless as he was. He will rot in prison.
And Jesus makes the moral very clear. Every one of us will rot in hell if we do not forgive those who have injured us–and forgive them from our kardia, from our heart, with our whole soul. Revenge is not an option, even if there is a prime-time network program about it. The Chinese proverb is true–he who seeks revenge should dig two graves, the second one for himself. The quest for vengeance is itself a prison for the soul. Dancing on the grave of our enemy will bring us no happiness, no closure. God, who made us in his own image, knows that. God wants us to be happy as He is happy; that’s why he forbids revenge.
Did we not learn that truth in the bloody twentieth century? In retribution for the murder of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary began WW I. In retribution for the Treaty of Versailles and what he perceived as Jewish Bolshevism, Hitler ravaged Europe and murdered millions of Poles, Romany, Jews and Catholic priests. Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Ukraine–the tuition for our schooling was half a billion souls–innocent and guilty alike. Can we not learn from this classroom of horror?
That means we must exchange injury for both forgiveness and love. Did Jesus promise us that being a Christian would be easy? Did He say, just say the sinner’s prayer and believe in me and then you can do whatever pleases you? No. We have to act in ways that do not please ourselves, and do those things because of our love for God and for our neighbor. We have to live that way as gift to Him because He lived that way as gift to us. We were enemies of God, but instead of letting us stay in our miserable state, He suffered and died for us.
The scriptural key to understanding forgiveness is that first prayer Jesus offered for us on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. Every wrong I have done, every hurt I have administered, has been due to my own moral cowardice, weakness of will, or sheer stupidity. I, then, must admit that same dynamic at work in every one I encounter, every day. But God, who is brave, strong and wise, and has every right to slap us down, has pardoned me, and you, and all the other weak and pusillanimous and slow-witted people. We, then, must forgive each other.