Sunday, August 31, 2008: 11th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – Tone 2. The Placing of the Cincture (Sash) of the Most-Holy Theotokos (395-408). Hieromartyr Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (258). St. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (471).
Forgiveness, for me at least, is one of the hardest subject on which to preach. The struggle that I have is this: People tend to absolutize forgiveness. What I mean by that is that for many Christians, and even non-Christians, forgiveness is the most important of all Christian virtues. In fact for many, forgiveness, together with its ancillary virtues such as compassion, tolerance, and understanding, seems to have become the only virtue. As with other approaches (Christian or not) to the moral life that make, for example peace or justice, the only virtues, making forgiveness the only, or even the central, virtue of the Christian life betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the virtuous life.
In the classical Christian, and even some pre-Christian such as we see in Plato and Aristotle, understanding, virtue is a matter of balance. So for example, Plato understandings justice as the functioning of each part according to own limits and purposes. For Aristotle, courage is the means between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice. And for both Christians and non-Christians virtue is not simply a matter of balance, but the ability of the person to act or behave habitually in a right (that is, balanced) fashion.
Christ in the Gospel, or so I would argue, presents a similar understanding of the virtuous life as one of balance. The parable recounted in Matthew 18.23-35 is in response to Peter’s question in v. 21: “Then Peter came to Him and said, “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'” Jesus respond by saying, in v. 22, “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'” He then proceeds to offer the parable of the wicked servant.
From an exegetical point of view the interesting thing about the parable is that it seems to contradict what He has just told Peter. Yes, initially at least, the king forgives his servant an extraordinarily large debt in response to his servant’s pleadings. But while the master’s forgiveness is real, it is not unconditional, it is not absolute. What do I mean by this?
When the newly forgiven servant is himself approached by his fellow servant with a request similar to that he earlier made to the king, the wicked servant not only does not forgive the debt, he has the debtor thrown into prison. Hearing of this from other servants the king calls his servant into his presence and, in response to the servant’s lack of compassion, rescinds his forgiveness and delivers the wicked servant over “to the torturers” until he is able to pay all that he owes the king.
Jesus concludes by telling Peter, and us, that the “Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (v. 35)
So here then is problem, it would seem that divine forgiveness is not absolute, has its limits. God does not forgive the unforgiving, He does not have mercy or compassion on those who themselves lack mercy and compassion on their neighbor. Let me offer a somewhat shocking summary of the point where we find ourselves: It would seem that there are circumstance is which forgiveness is not the God-pleasing thing to do. Evidently there are times when, as in the case of the servants who in their grief reported to the king the actions of the wicked servant, when a response other than forgiveness is required of us. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, that the virtuous response is not exhausted by forgiveness.
Let me explain.
St Matthew begins this chapter with the disciples coming to Jesus and asking “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v.1) In response Jesus calls “a little child to Him, set him in the midst” of the disciples. (v. 2) Turning to His somewhat misguided followers, Jesus tells them “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. (vv. 3-5) But this doesn’t end Jesus’ response. He continues His teaching on “Christian greatness” with three brief lessons that come rapidly one after the other in verses 6-19.
He begins by offering a negative example of Christian discipleship. He warns His disciples that they must have a special care of the “little ones” of faith. To lead the weak of faith into sin is a horrible crime, so horrible in fact that it would be better for me “millstone” hung around my neck and be “drowned in the depth of the sea.” (v. 6) In a fallen world, the little one’s of faith will be offended, “but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” For this person it would be better for them to cut off a hand or a foot or pluck out their own, and so enter into the Kingdom of God “lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.” (vv. 8, 9)
In verses 10-14, Jesus instructs His disciples to be always on the look out for the “lost sheep” among the faithful. The return of even one who has fallen away brings about more joy in Heaven than the 99 who remain faithful. Why? Because our Father in heaven desires that not even “one of these little ones should perish.” (v. 14) Notice here the shift in Jesus’ argument. The “little one” is no longer simply the child or the innocent among us, but the lost sheep, the sinful man or woman, who has strayed from the Gospel. Without losing sight of the innocent among us, we are also called to reconcile those who have a fallen into sin. How?
Again, we are called to forgive, to call back those who have strayed. But we are to do so only within limits. What are these limits? Taking my cue from not only the first verse of the chapter (vv. 1-9) but also the reaction of the king to the wicked servant at the end if the chapter, I would suggest the limits of forgiveness are found when forgiveness comes at the expense of the weak and vulnerable among us. When forgiveness means tolerating harm done to the little ones of faith, when it allows for the exploitation of others in their vulnerability or weakness, then forgiveness must be with held.
Think for a moment of what it means to forgive someone who has harmed you? What are you doing in this situation but, like the merciful king in the parable, refusing to press your own legitimate advantage in the face of the other person’s real and objective debt to you?
And when I refuse to forgive, what am I doing? It doesn’t mean asking for my due. Rather, when I withhold my forgiveness, I not only ignore the demands of justice, but use your debt to me as a means to harm you. When I am unforgiving, I don’t ask for what is owned me, I use what is owned me to punish you. So egregious is this behavior, that it evokes from the king a harsh, and seemingly unforgiving, response. But are things as they appear?
The wicked servant is willing not simply to press the demands of justice under the law, but to exploit the king’s own earlier act of mercy to harm his fellow servant. The wicked servant poisons his lord’s mercy by his willingness to inflict harm on his fellow servant. As the complaints of the other servants suggest, the willingness to make use of the mercy, compassion, forgiveness, understanding and freedom showed me to harm you undermines the very possibility of a peaceful communal life. We cannot live together in harmony or justice when the wicked are allowed to exploit the freedom of forgiveness to harm others.
Feelings of resentment (which no doubt the servants of the king felt for their wicked fellow servant), while not good, don’t necessarily signify the lack of forgiveness. Neither does the unwillingness to trust someone or spend time in their presence necessarily mean that I have failed to forgive. Much as I wouldn’t trust an alcoholic with the ability to limit his own drinking, there are people for whom my trust is likely to result in their fall.
Forgiveness then is my refusal to exploit others in their weakness, their poverty, their vulnerability.
When someone has harmed me, when by how they act or fail to act, they have indebted themselves me, forgiveness is the virtue on my part that keeps me from pressing my advantage over them. But I must do so in such a manner that a third party does not pay the cost for my action. This concern for a third party is critical because forgiveness is simply negative, it is more than simply writing off a debt owed, or not exploiting another’s weakness. Forgiveness is in the service of reconciliation, of re-establishing a lost communion between God and humanity and humanity with itself.
For this reason, when I forgive someone I must do more than simply refusal to use people’s own weakness against them or for my own gain, it also means that I refuse to colluded (even passively or unintentionally) with their mistreatment of others, even if they person they harm is themselves. It is not forgiving to allow others to use my gift to them to be used against others. Again, forgiving the criminal, for example, does not mean overlooking the harm he has done others, ignoring the possibility (granted more or less likely) that he will harm someone in the future, much less my remaining passive in the face of his willingness harm others. Likewise, forgiveness does not preclude reparations for harm done.
In the final analysis, though forgiveness is always more than NOT doing something; forgiveness must also be positive. The negative movement of forgiveness is ALWAYS in the service of the positive movement of reconciliation.