I once read a really interesting article in “Psychology Today” with the title, “Why you don’t always have to forgive.” In it psychologist Deborah Schurman-Kauflin argues that forgiveness is an optional part of the grieving process. She writes:
“You’ve been hurt…Now you are left in tatters, at your lowest point in life…Eventually you must go through a healing process. As hard as it was to hit bottom, you will come to find that crawling your way out of the pit is equally as hard…Grieving and healing is a slow, slow process that cannot be hurried or skipped…With time, you come to realize that you are moving forward, and it is usually at this point that someone will ask about forgiveness…[But] though society pressures you to forgive the person who wronged you, the truth is that forgiving may be the worst thing you can do. Many religions and therapies focus on forgiving a perpetrator so that the victim can ‘move on’ …However, forgiveness is not something that just happens…Though many find a way to move forward in life, forgiveness truly eludes them. This does not make them bad people. This just means that it is not healing for them at this time…Under… pressure, victims will give in and comply. They say they have forgiven when in their hearts they have not… Forgiveness comes from within. It is not something that can be forced. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you cannot, then don’t think that you are a bad person or that you failed in some way. In some cases, forgiveness is just not possible…Don’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t say you forgive someone when you don’t. It won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your life easier.”
That’s quite a statement. God knows that many of us have suffered – and that there are sins that are seemingly impossible to forgive, but I have to admit that when I read Dr. Schurman-Kauflin’s article I was put off by a lot of what she said – and her tone seemed pointedly anti-religion. She seems to primarily see Christians as unfair, demanding that believers forgive even if they are not ready, even if they are not sincere.
Today’s gospel has been used to promote that view. In it, Jesus tells Peter that he must forgive, not just “seven times,” but “seventy times seven.” And then he provides the example of the ungrateful slave, who ended up being sentenced to torture until he paid his debt. This certainly seems to say that forgiving is mandatory – and that if we can’t forgive someone we will be punished. But, unlike Dr. Schurman-Kauflin, I don’t think being forced to forgive is what the story’s about. I think it’s about relationships. I think it’s about how we demonstrate God’s love through our interactions with one another.
Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the connection between our love for God and our love of neighbor over and over. And this story is consistent with that theme. Although his gospel places this story during Jesus’ life span, it’s probably not a record of an actual conversation, but rather it’s an illustration of how Jesus’ teachings should be applied to Matthew’s community. We know this because in the story Peter asks Jesus what he should do if another member of “the church” sins against him – but there was no “church” in Jesus’ lifetime. But Matthew’s gospel writer did have a church – a church he was trying to build up – a church whose members were in constant danger from authorities – a church in which unity was crucial.
In last week’s gospel, we heard about how we should deal with someone who has offended us. This “three step process” was not something Matthew thought up. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was also practiced by a community called the Essenes who lived in desert communities in Qumran. Scholars believe that both groups used this process because it promoted unity. So Matthew’s goal in promoting this ancient practice was both theological and practical. But why didn’t Jesus (or Matthew) simply say, “We have to forgive one another. We have to stick together if we want to survive”? Why the threats? The simple answer is that Matthew understood human nature. He may not have had a Ph.D., but he was still way ahead of Dr. Schurman-Kauflin. He understood that one of the hardest – potentially impossible -things you can ask anyone to do is to forgive. And he understood that just telling people to be merciful isn’t very effective – but giving them an example of it is. Which brings us back to the story of the ungrateful slave.
I used to think this parable was about the slave – about one who owed much himself and was forgiven but then refused to forgive the much smaller obligation of his debtor. But I have come to believe that the core of the story resides in the character of the king, because it is the king that demonstrates the crucial difference between “forgiveness” and “mercy.” In the story, the bad slave does not ask the king to dismiss his debt. He asks his lord for patience – for a little more time to pay. But what the king actually does is to release him from his obligation entirely. The lord goes beyond what he is asked to do –beyond forgiveness. He demonstrates mercy. You see, the doctor is right about one thing. Human beings give – and receive- empty apologies all the time that do nothing to promote healing. But it is not hollow forgiveness that we are being asked to afford one another. It is mercy. And mercy by its very nature is undeserved – and beyond our human capacity to grant.
Viewed in this light, the slave’s mistake was not simply failing to forgive his own debtor; it was failing to consider how his actions would affect others -and in ignoring the example and support of his king – a king who had much greater power than the slave and used it to give something more than what he was asked. The bad slave thought only of himself, of what forgiveness would mean for him. He did not see that the king was showing him a different and better way, just as God shows it to us.
That’s what Dr. Schurman-Kauflin is missing. She is not wrong about the necessity of honest grieving and gradual healing, about forgiveness needing to come from the heart, about not saying we forgive someone when we don’t- but I think she’s dead wrong when she says that sometimes forgiveness is” just not possible”- and when she says that forgiveness comes from within you. Forgiveness doesn’t come from within us. It comes through us. It comes from God – and for God, forgiveness is always possible. True forgiveness is allowing God’s mercy to move through us, because only God has the power to know us completely and forgive us completely. Giving in to the demands of those who encourage us to forgive may feel like capitulating to peer pressure -and perhaps the demand that we forgive each other over and over and over again does seem hard and unfair. But giving God the burden of the anger, hatred, and fear that we carry inside us as a result of unforgiven sins – sins we have committed and sins that have been committed against us – is absolutely right – and it’s what God wants us to do, to lay our burdens on him. That’s grace. And that’s God. And that is always good. AMEN.
Schurman-Kauflin, Deborah. “Why You Don’t Always Have to Forgive,” Criminal profiling and the deviant mind, Psychology Today, August 21, 2012.