Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Reflection for September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Lawrence DiCostanzo

The readings today from Genesis and Matthew are about forgiveness.  I will tell you:  This has been the hardest scripture for me to tangle with.  I think that the reason is that the land of forgiveness shares a very long border with the land of sin.  And I do not like to think about sin.  Amazingly, tangling with the topic has brought me right back again to the Sermon on the Mount.

So . . .  forgiveness.

Let’s say I live in a lovely house.  It has trees on the lawn and pretty shutters.  The kitchen is beautiful and sparkling.  There is a great room for reading and TV and a nice, clean, neat work shop.  Even my junk in the basement is neatly stored in boxes or covered with plastic sheets.  It’s satisfying.  Then, like a good householder, I wonder about checking the foundation.  So, I dig a little to assure myself that the house is nicely built on rock. This is called denial.  What I find is plenty of wet sand, centipedes, and little rock.  That is my house.  I have to do something about this foundation.

I have to build a new foundation or engage in the unending process of rebuilding the old one.  That means excavating my dark side.  This process of excavating and building requires forgiveness.  Forgiveness is part of the machinery of rebuilding.  Forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, and one of the hardest things — working out forgiveness when the person we’ve hurt is not available any more.  Sometimes we just need to ask for the grace of being forgiven.

There is always another person besides myself that I need to consider.  Just as wrongdoing is relational, so is forgiveness.  Therefore, maybe a better word is reconciliation.  We mutually forgive and are forgiven.  If love has subspecies, forgiveness is one of them.  So, forgiveness is love.

But it is dreadful and scary to look at what’s under the basement.  There is unease and dread and sorrow.  I have done something wrong to a human or an animal or an aspect of creation.  I may have left someone to grieve even in a small way.  Denial is my protection. It is just too hard to take on the burden of dread or sorrow. .

God is with us in those moments of sorrow and dread.  This just has to be the case.  For one thing, St. Paul says says sorrow precedes repentance.  (2 Corinthians 7:10)  I mean, who’s to argue with him?  But for another, Jesus scolds us about forgiveness.. Think of his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger!  Reconcile with your brother before you make that offering at the temple!  You’ll burn just for calling your brother a fool!  Settle with your neighbor before you get to court and feel the pangs of judgment!  This is his way of saying: your heart does suffer when you do wrong.  Your heart suffers when you don’t forgive.

Let’s look at some very great wrongs and see how it goes.

You will recall that there was an awful genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days.  A lot of them were slaughtered by hand, one-on-one.  A few years ago, the New York Times ran a stunning photo essay on a selection of perpetrators and victims.  In the photos, individual victims and survivors posed with the individual perpetrators who had committed the atrocities that personally affected them.  I burned down her house!  He killed my children! They were neighbors and fellow townsmen.  Just like in South Africa at the instance of the blessed Desmond Tutu, Rwanda initiated a coming together.  After the suffering and dread and shame, the perpetrator actually comes to the victim’s house and kneels and asks.  It takes courage on both sides, a putting away of dread and shame and rancor.  They now testify (I am paraphrasing):  Forgiveness is mercy; I used to be a dry stick; I found peace in my heart.

In Genesis, Joseph suffered a terrible wrong.  His brothers had always been violent men.  Now, they stripped Joseph and threw him into a pit out of jealousy and hatred.  They were going to kill him., but, instead, they made money off him and sold him into slavery.  Then, they lied to their father Jacob and kept their lie hidden for years.  In the meantime, before his rise to the heights in Egypt, Joseph was first a slave in Egypt, suffered an injustice and then spent years in prison.

After all the great revelations were made and after Jacob had died, the brothers asked Joseph for forgiveness.  They were motivated by fear that Joseph would hurt them.  They perhaps made up another lie about how Jacob told them to ask Joseph for forgiveness.  Whatever was the case, when Joseph responded with tears, they truly did ask for forgiveness.  They wept and fell down before him.  Of course, Joseph took the high road, saying that God had planned it all anyway.  But I doubt that Joseph had forgotten the injury done him and still carried its weight.  Nonetheless, the tears are witness to the reconciliation.  As high and mighty as he was, the inner boy Joseph needed to be recognized.  He was entitled to forgive.  The brothers were now entitled to forgiveness.  This is what was on offer in Rwanda.

In today’s really difficult Gospel passage, Jesus, though a parable, tells a story about us.  In the first part of the parable, the king forgives an incredible debt.  This is ten thousand talents!  An amount out of the Arabian Nights.  He does it because the debtor begs for more time to repay.  The king, of course, knows that the man will never be able to repay.  Nonetheless, the king forgives completely. He is moved by pity.

It is my default when I read this passage to think that the king is God who forgives always the ways in which we do not measure up.  Always – seventy times seven!  This is, in my opinion, a limited view the parable.  The king is also us.  Why?  Because Jesus is answering Peter’s question about how often he should forgive his brother.   Jesus’ reply is:  Be like the king!  Just for the sake of the story, Jesus pumps us up to high status and unlimited generosity.  His exaggeration gives us an aspiration.  In his challenging way, he is saying:  Be like God!

In the second part of the parable, Jesus tells the parallel story, the story of non-forgiveness. I think the parallel story is needed to give the story of the king better perspective.  The forgiven man does not do as was done to him.  He refuses to forgive a paltry debt.  Note how this man is owed, but is not a victim – not like Joseph or a Rwandan victim.  He is simply called to forgive or extinguish a debt.  He is being called to love.  But his issue is simply that he does not love the debtor.  When we think how the king was moved by pity, we see that the wrongdoing is a failure of love.

I started by saying that preparing this reflection eventually led me to the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Sermon, Jesus says a lot about reconciliation.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger!  Reconcile with your brother before you make that offering at the temple!  You’ll burn just for calling your brother a fool!  Settle with your neighbor before you get to court and feel the pangs of judgment!   Jesus is smart and he knows that we have a dark side and he knows that we suffer because of it.  But he knows more than that.  He wants us to step up to a lot more.  He wants us to be Joseph and the king.  He wants us to love and not be like the unforgiving man who failed at love.

Jesus’ advice about reconciling with your brother and so forth almost immediately precede the Sermon on the Mount’s unique, far-reaching, summary of the highest law.

. . .  I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . .  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This passage seems to me to apply both to perpetrators and to victims.  It says what forgiveness really is.  This passage helps in the continuous project of building my house on rock and not on the sand.  Of taking my dark side into the light.  It’s not that I’m perfect like my heavenly father – I mean, who could!  But I can be a work in progress towards being a house on rock, a better citizen of the Kingdom.  I can at least be aware of God’s example.