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Sermon for September 14, 2014: Mercy
I was recently struck by an article in “Psychology Today” with the title, “Why you don’t always have to forgive.” In it psychologist Deborah SchurmanKauflin 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 grieving and 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. At some point in your grieving process, someone, somewhere, will ask you if you forgive [the person who hurt you]. ..[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…It may be surprising to learn how many people will pressure survivors to forgive a perpetrator… Victims can lose their families, their children, and are even threatened with their souls if they can’t find a way to forgive. Under such 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 –and probably one that is comforting to many of us – especially during the week in which we remembered one of the greatest single sins committed against this nation. Because God knows that many of us have suffered – and that there are sins that are seemingly impossible to forgive. Still, 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 to be perfectly honest, her tone seemed pointedly antireligion. Which doesn’t surprise me- because I know a lot of very smart, very kind people – people who want to help others – who see Christians as rigid, unfair and even cruel. But we are Christians, and we don’t demand that people forgive others. We don’t threaten victims with the loss of their souls if they don’t forgive. We don’t engage in spiritual peer pressure. Do we?
Well, if today’s gospel is any indication, it certainly seems like we’re supposed to. “Lord,” Peter says to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive”? – adding hopefully, “seven times”? “No,” Jesus tells him – more like seventy times seven.” And this is not optional. Because, according to Matthew’s gospel, if you don’t forgive your neighbor, you, like the ungrateful slave, will be tortured until you pay your debt.
Wait – is that right? If we can’t forgive someone we will be tortured? Well, if we believe that, then maybe Dr. Schurman-Kauflin has a point when she says that religious people pressure others to forgive those who victimize them. After all, we’re all just trying to follow the teachings of Jesus as best we can – and the author of Matthew tells us that is what Jesus said. Except maybe it’s not that simple. First of all, we have to look at the context in which the story is told. The author of the gospel of Matthew was writing for a specific community. Although his gospel places this story during Jesus’ life span, it’s probably not a report of an actual incident. 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 in two ways. First, it allowed members to deal with potentially disastrous situations quickly and openly; and secondly, to make sure that sinners who had been separated from the community be restored as quickly as possible. Which is why this story pretty much eliminates any grounds for the members of Matthew’s community to hold grudges. You see, when Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive someone “as many as seven times,” he thought he was being generous. That’s because the common rabbinical instruction at the time was that you only had to forgive someone three times. But Matthew’s author has Jesus multiply that figure by seventy – a ridiculously large number that is basically shorthand for “every time.”
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 exactly was Dr. Schurman-Kauflin would probably assume it is – what I learned as a child – what I have heard in countless sermons. We mustn’t be like the bad slave – the one who owed so much and was forgiven but refused to forgive the much smaller obligation of his debtor. The lesson seems simple: you must forgive others because you have been forgiven. But now I don’t think that that is quite right. Because there is a 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 his debt. But what the king actually does is to release him from his obligation entirely. The lord gives him mercy. You see, the doctor is right. Human beings give – and receive- empty apologies all the time that do nothing to promote healing. I have given – and received – a few of those myself. 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. So how are we supposed to do what the gospel tells us we’re supposed to do?
Maybe it helps to look at the ungrateful slave’s story in a different way. You see, I think the bad slave’s sin was not simply failing to forgive his own debtor; it was betraying the example of his king. His sin was not cruelty. It was pride. Because he thought that he could do whatever he wanted without considering his community – and without asking God for help.
And that’s how Dr. Schurman-Kauflin is wrong. Because although I believe she’s right about the necessity of honest grieving and gradual healing, and I completely agree that forgiveness comes from the heart, and I absolutely believe that you shouldn’t say you forgive someone when you don’t, I think she’s dead wrong when she says that forgiveness comes from within you – and when she says that sometimes forgiveness is” just not possible.”
The truth is that forgiveness doesn’t come from within you. It comes through you. It comes from God – and for God, forgiveness is always possible. Because here’s what forgiveness really is: It is allowing God’s mercy to move through us.
Maybe giving in to the demands of your fellow human beings who encourage you to forgive is capitulating to peer pressure. Perhaps Jesus’ demand that we forgive each other over and over and over again is 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 something else entirely. That’s grace. And that’s God. And that is
always good. AMEN.
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