The hard, holy work of reconciliation
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Sept. 14, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19):
To listen to earlier homilies click here.
No Future without Forgiveness, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
True Forgiveness 3: Seventy times Seven, Sheila Cassidy
Draft text of the homily—please do not cite without permission
Forgiving is hard.
77 times—or 70 times 7 (the translations vary).
Either way it’s a LOT.
And I suspect part of the message is that if you’re still calculating the number of times, you’re not there yet.
Peter asks how often, and scholars suggest that Peter is exaggerating. Rabbinic sources say three times is all that’s required, so he more than doubles that.
And then Jesus goes for this ridiculous hyperbole…77 times, or really “as many times as it takes.”
But I’m not sure Jesus’ answer is about frequency…
I think Jesus is telling us—showing us—the difference between how completely God forgives, and how partially we do.
How rare true forgiveness is among us, while it is completely commonplace with God.
How different forgiveness is in God’s economy of abundance and grace, and our economies of scarcity and exchange.
The phrase “77 times” as an ironic echo of the same phrase used in a horribly disturbing poem in Genesis 4.
The fifth generation descendant of Cain, Lamech, whom today we would label a sociopath, and who still haunts our world and often makes the nightly news, boasts to his wives that he has taken revenge on a man for merely wounding him, and even more horrifically has killed a boy for hurting him.
“For a man I have slain for my wound, a boy for my bruising”
Then he says, “For sevenfold Cain is avenged, and Lamech seventy and seven.” (Gen. 4:24)
And Jesus says, “how often should you forgive (if you’re forgiving as God forgives)? Not seven times but seventy and seven.”
The parable Jesus then tells demonstrates how common it is for us to seek retribution rather than reconciliation.
How often what we call justice is really just a form of revenge.
How different are God’s ways from our ways.
He tells a parable about how really difficult it is living in this in-between land.
Between the demands of Pharaoh—the world of retribution and revenge—and the freedom of God’s promise of grace—of enough.
Between the completion of Christ’s work, and the fulfillment of Christ’s glory.
Between our own fears and our hopes, and our own delicate and damaged souls.
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” Jesus told us last week.
And today he give us a parable that shows this in terrifying hyperbolic detail.
10,000 talents is an absurd amount.
One talent was worth more than 15 years worth of wages for a laborer.
So the minimum wage in MA is currently $8.00 an hour, that’s $16,640 a year…times 15…so one talent is $249,600…times 10,000…just under 2.5 BILLION dollars, that this guy owes.
And the king does what?
Releases him and forgives this astronomical (almost comical) debt.
A denarius is worth about a day’s wage, so again at $8.00/hour, that’s about $640 dollars.
Now if you’re trying to live on $8.00/hour $640 is a lot of money, but the parable isn’t really illustrating the difference in debt.
The parable is illustrating the difference between how God operates and how we operate.
And how easy it is to slip back into the patterns of retribution and violence even after we’ve tasted the sweetness of reconciliation and grace.
How we poison ourselves with the sting of old hurts.
And if we bind ourselves to that world, we will be bound.
Forgiving is hard work.
Even for small offenses, what often happens is a pretense of forgiveness—a kind of cheap forgiveness for the sake of being pleasant.
How often do you say, “It’s ok.”
“It doesn’t matter…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.”
When it isn’t ok.
When it does matter.
And when YOU are certainly going to keep worrying about it?
How difficult it is to look someone in the eye and say with complete honesty, “I forgive you?”
Asking for forgiveness is maybe even harder.
Especially in a culture where blame shifting is elevated to an art form.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “True reconciliation is not cheap.”
Reconciliation—which is the ultimate goal of forgiveness—is costly, time-consuming, and really hard emotional and spiritual work, because true forgiveness, and reconciliation, is not about making things better.
It’s about revealing the truth.
In his remarkable book, No Future without Forgiveness, Bishop Tutu, reflecting on his work with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes:
“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are.
“It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.
“True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth.
“It could even sometimes make things worse.
“It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing.
“Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing.”
But dealing with the real situation is hard, and messy.
It means dealing with the real hurt, and dealing with our own and other’s shame is painful.
Sheila Cassidy is a doctor, active in the hospice movement, who in the early years of her career found herself in Chile.
She was arrested and tortured by the secret police under the brutal Pinochet regime.
She has written eloquently about forgiveness.
“I would never say to someone ‘you must forgive’,” she says.
“I would not dare.
“Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive?
“I cannot tell any one who has been badly hurt, or wronged that they must forgive.” (Tablet, March 2, 1991)
I understand that.
I feel the same way.
I’ve sat face to face with people who have told me really horrible stories of abuse.
And I really can’t imagine how they could ever really, completely forgive their abusers.
I cannot tell anyone who has been hurt in ways that I can’t imagine that you must forgive.
However, from my own experience I will also say, that I agree with Sheila Cassidy when she goes on to say, that, “However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us……We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed.”
And Bishop Tutu echoes this saying reconciliation, “means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.”
“It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”
And, (and this is perhaps most difficult of all)
“Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin…”
Forgiving ultimately means committing to living under God’s economy of mercy and grace and restorative justice, rather than feeding our need for retribution and quid pro quo.
Do we need to practice this commitment a lot?
Yes. More than a lot.
77 times more.
A much as it takes.
We have been poisoned by this sting since before the time of Lamech’s boast of barbaric revenge.
We have generation upon generation of shame and hurt to work through.
And from now on, every three years, this reading will come up on or near the anniversary of 9/11.
Perhaps a poignant reminder of how we’re doing and how far we still need to go.
Can we forgive?
Yes, absolutely we can.
As long as we’re willing to do the work that true forgiveness requires.
Which sounds pretty daunting.
I often wonder if one of the biggest obstacles to doing that work isn’t the fearful idea that somehow forgiving is all up to us.
The word forgiveness is a strong form of the root, “to give.”
It means to completely give.
Forgiveness is not something anyone deserves, nor can claim as a right.
It is a completely free gift from the injured party.
And ultimately from God.
Therefore, Sheila Cassidy reminds us that “We must pray for the power to forgive.”
Forgiveness is ultimately a gift.
A gift from God…that we have received and are now encouraged to share.
We have been forgiven.
And as Richard Rohr reminds us, we’re forgiven “not because we are good, but because God is good.”
We’ve been given this tremendous gift.
A pearl of great price.
And because of that we have the authority, the responsibility, to share that gift with everyone.
And to participate in the God’s mission, to reconcile all of this fallen creation with God.
It’s hard work.
70 times 7 hard.
But it is also 70 times 7 holy because God is in it with us.