This isn’t a rhetorical question, nor is it a desire for the USA to become a one-religion state. That’s just silly talk. But I hear a lot of discourse, and most of it conservative, and it bemoans and bewails the fact that the USA was supposed to be a Christian nation (one nation under God, etc, etc), and now they’re not letting us pray in schools or display the 10 commandments in the courthouse. Intentions of the founding fathers aside for a moment (you might be amused to hear about Jefferson’s personal theology, not to mention his reader’s digest version of the bible, but that’s another blogpost for another day), I’d like to posit an interesting juxtaposition for your consideration, care of the calendar and the makers of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Now the calendar is as it is, but in case you’re curious, the Revised Common Lectionary is the three year cycle that a whole bunch of Christians use to read a solid chunk of the bible in church on Sunday, bit by bit over the course of three years. Some bits of the bible get skipped and some get emphasized, but it’ll give you the gist if you show up. Now, September 11th falls on a Sunday this year, which means that a whole lot of church-going folk are going to be present in the pews, and if they’re Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran or United Methodist here’s what they’re going to hear: Matthew 18:21-35. And you’re saying… so?? Well, here’s what Matthew 18:21-35 says, from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible:
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave 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 until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
And the moral of the story is this: No matter what, forgive. And if you need the threat of punishment, then how about this: give as you’ve gotten or you’ll get as you’ve given.
This is what Jesus teaches. And what’s more? This isn’t a one off, because this is the sort of shit he’s always going on about. Love your neighbor, forgive each other, heal each other, live in peace with one another… It’s just one story after another with this guy, and all on a theme. And it’s the way he lived his own life, going around preaching and teaching people a new way of life, offering them a new way of life.
…A new way of life that his students didn’t always understand, hence Peter’s question at the beginning of this little section. And Peter was at the head of the class and he didn’t get it…
Loving our neighbor as our selves as a way of loving God was the thing that Jesus preached left, right, up, down and sideways. It was the thing that he lived right until they killed him for it. It was the thing that his students tried to understand, but certainly didn’t get during his lifetime. It was the thing that he said was the cornerstone, the foundation of everything else, the thing you could use as a touchstone, a comparative analysis tool.
And forgiveness is a part of loving our neighbors as our selves as a means of loving God. But let’s be clear here: sometimes forgiveness also means saying no, I forgive you and I won’t enable you in your bad behavior.
I mean, let’s think about this. What is forgiveness? There are many different definitions we could use, but what is it materially? What’s the essence of a true, deep, solid forgiveness? Isn’t it when you get to that point where one of two things happen and then that leads to a total release, a sense of no longer being connected to the suffering of the event even if the pain persists? Isn’t it when you are able to see deeply into either (or both) your own reasons for being upset, and/or the other person’s reasons for offending so much so that you can have deep compassion about the incident? And maybe this, the incident is something relatively minor like an argument with a spouse, but perhaps it’s deeper.
Perhaps the offender is an addict and no amount of forgiveness is going to keep them from abusing substances, themselves and everyone around them until they get the proper support and make the decision and the steps to stop. In that case a person can forgive the addict without excusing the behavior. A person can forgive the addict without staying and enabling bad behavior. A person can forgive forever, deeply aware of why the behavior is happening even while they remove themselves from a destructive situation. A person can achieve their own release, their own peace even while they forgive the offender from afar.
Perhaps the offender is a known or unknown terrorist or regime and no amount of forgiveness is going to change their ideology or bring a loved one back. Perhaps the pain, the grief, the sorrow and the suffering are so mixed up and intertwined that the idea of forgiveness gets confused and murky. Forgiveness does not mean that grief is cut short or pain evaporates. Forgiveness does not mean that justice is averted or that sorrow is invalid. Forgiveness means that the suffering, the thing that was eating us alive, the thing that was promoting in us the sinful but oh-so-delicious desire for revenge, retribution and death, the thing that was making monsters out of us, forgiveness puts that to rest. Forgiveness allows us to experience the purity of our grief and pain and sorrow without giving care and feeding to the monster within who can sink to the same level as our offender. And at this level of offense, maybe forgiveness is the wrong word, though it’s the same action. We could also think of it as healing. In order to live our lives as mature human beings, as mature Christians for those of us who are, we are called to the greatest and deepest healing of self and others that we are possibly capable of, and if we’re walking around with a gaping wound that we refuse to tend to… Well, at the very least, our capacity to help heal others with similar wounds is dramatically reduced.
So what would it look like if the USA were truly a Christian nation, or at least a nation that espoused the morality that was embraced by the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth?
Our federal budget would look very different, I’ll tell you that for certain. We’d be engaged in a whole lot of healing and a lot less fighting. What a dream!
I think I’ll dream that dream this Sunday. Feel free to join in if you like.
[Like what you read? Some of it came from this week’s Monday Morning Exegete.]