The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Updated: Sep 21
I am sometimes amazed at the things we find in the Bible. Who said Scripture was boring? I never noticed until this week that Paul says eating your vegetables is important. That for some in the church at Rome, being a vegetarian was central to who they are, and Paul says we shouldn’t diss them. It was a time when early Christians were disagreeing on whether Jewish kosher laws should be followed or not. So next time our children or grandchildren don’t want to eat their broccoli, we might remind them that eating our vegetables is in the Bible.
These words about what people eat, and why it became contentious in the early church, is Paul encouraging readers to discover and honor the differences among the faithful, practicing compassion and respect to those with radically different conceptions of holiness and discipleship. He’s making clear that even in the early church people had different opinions and ways of thinking about Christian community. Paul wanted the focus to be on loving Christ and loving our neighbors. And that we should be patient with each other.
Which is what today’s Gospel is about. Patience and forgiveness. Not my strong suits. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus really said this, about forgiving someone a hundred times. Didn’t he know how hard it was? And yet… isn’t that what he did on the cross? Richard Rohr reminds us that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness.
Forgiveness. We desire it for ourselves when we need it. It is often hard to give to another when we’ve been hurt or wronged. One of the reasons we find forgiveness so hard is because we’re in pain from the hurts life has sent our way. I believe forgiveness is hardest with those who are closest to us. John Lennon once said “love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” That may be a slight exaggeration, but it rings true.
Talking about forgiveness makes me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t always do forgiveness well. In fact, I have been known to hold grudges. Because I’ve been hurt. To hold on to resentments and hurts. Because I’ve been wronged. To practice unforgiveness.
At the same time, I really want to be better at it. I have at least a dozen books in my library on learning to forgive. One of the better ones is The Forgiveness Book, by a priest named Bob Libby, written at least 25 years ago.
Perhaps the most important learning for me from that book is that forgiveness is for me, not for the person who has offended me. Forgiveness is about letting go of my hurt and resentment, whether or not the offending person has asked for it. I liken it to making a tight fist and holding it for a few minutes. When I’m unforgiving of another person, that’s what my life is like, tight, taut, constricted. When I can forgive, to let go of the hurt, it’s like opening my fist, and relaxing. It feels so much better.
And forgiveness of another cannot happen unless we forgive ourselves first. The first step is forgiving reality for what it is, writes Richard Rohr. We need to recognize that the world is good and bad, rolled into one. This is a paradox, and reality. Then I can acknowledge my own imperfection, and recognize that God forgives me. That God loves me, just as I am. Just as we cannot truly love someone without first loving ourselves, we cannot forgive someone without forgiving ourselves.
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. Nor is it contingent on the offending person’s request for it. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the impact of another person’s actions in our lives. And then move toward letting it go.
To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…
Jesus’ parable about a man who is forgiven a huge debt and then bears down on another man who owes him a pittance is a masterpiece of Kingdom logic. Forgiveness is God’s constant attitude toward us. As Pope Francis has said, “God never tires of offering us forgiveness; it is we who tire of seeking it.”
Jesus did not write books or systems of rules. He told stories. He told stories to force the point. He wanted everyone who heard that story the first time to do what we are asked to do as we hear it the umpteenth time today, which is choose. Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be like? The guy who threw caution to the wind and ate all that money and forgave his staff member? Or, the guy who had not a shred of mercy in his heart?
That means loving our enemies and forgiving God when life doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, does not play out according to the script that we’ve all written. Jesus doesn’t want bible study groups all over the country to meet to analyze this parable. He simply wants us to choose. What kind of person do we want to be? One who listens to others and to our own life and forgives, or one who demands that everybody be right and be paid up always?
I believe that this story calls us also to address our corporate sins. Jesus was about life and justice and wholeness for all. And as citizens of this country, we are faced with the ugly reality of racism, that has been part of our lives since the first slaves arrived 400 years ago. Racism in all its forms denies the humanity of people of color. And is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.
Sixty years ago on Friday, 4 young African American girls were killed when their church was bombed in Birmingham, AL. This shameful act was one of several such intended to derail the Civil Rights movement, and was touted by the perpetrators as a response to the March on Washington that had taken place 3 weeks earlier. On that day the world lost four precious children of God.
Sixty years later we are still struggling to make our country a place of equal opportunity, equal justice, equal housing and education, equal access to voting. We are struggling to own our own responsibility for our country’s ills, because we all have a part in them. This Gospel reminds us that we need to seek forgiveness and at the same time work to make things better, more equal.
It's hard to know how a single individual can make a difference. No one can do everything. Few of us have any power. But however futile it might feel, we all have our small part to play. We can march and protest. Sign a petition. Vote. Learn. Read. Back at St. Paul’s, that’s how we started a journey of being educated about racism and its effects, by reading books together and talking with one another.
The Good News is this: forgiveness, while contrary to our nature, is an integral part of God’s nature. The Gospel story is meant to illustrate the great gap between our ways—even when they seem just—and God’s extravagance when it comes to mercy. The foolish servant in this parable doesn’t get it—his unrepayable debt was wiped out by the king not because of his artful protestations and high drama, but simply and unconditionally out of grace.
The words of the today’s Psalm say it well, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, He will not always accuse us nor will he keep his anger forever.” God loves us and will never let any one of us go.