Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:35.
These words, particularly in the context of the foregoing parable of the Unforgiving Servant, are severe by all measures. And that for good reason. Forgiveness is not just another admirable quality in some hierarchy of virtues. For the church, it is constitutive and essential to its ongoing life. It is assumed that members of the church will sin against one another and that they will be sinned against. How could it be otherwise where sinful people are called into a life of holiness? The only way such a community can function is through regular confession, repentance and forgiveness. Though all of this takes place regularly on a corporate level, it must, on occasion, occur on an individual level as well. Last week’s gospel lesson dealt with the procedures applicable to that practice. This week’s gospel focuses more broadly on the nature of forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness is often portrayed as weakness, a form of selflessness that renders its practitioner a kind of doormat. It is anything but. On one level, forgiveness is very practical and self interested. Holding grudges is draining and self defeating. It bends your mind back into a past moment that cannot be changed and away from a future that can still be shaped. Forgiveness is not capitulation to the one who wrongs you. It is an affirmative act of resistance. By forgiving my enemies, I deny them power over me. My daughter Emily, also a pastor, regularly admonishes me to “evict the troublesome tenants in my head.” She goes further, inviting us to imagine serving a notice of eviction to the one most deeply imbedded under our skin. She even encourages us to imagine the sheriff forcefully removing the tenant from the premises.
Forgiveness is therefore liberating, both for the one forgiving and the one forgiven. For the former, it frees up band width for relevant data and operations that matter. For the latter, it opens up the possibility for renewed relationship free from the constraint of past hostility. The operative word here is “possibility.” One can always hope that expressing forgiveness to an offender will inspire thankfulness and a determination to make a new start. As Jesus’ parable illustrates, however, that hope does not always materialize. For that reason, it is important to understand that forgiveness is not contingent on repentance. As Jesus points out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. Disciples of Jesus are called to practice the same perfect forgiveness whether it meets with acceptance and repentance or not. Matthew 5:48.
Forgiveness is not permission for the offender to continue aggressive, abusive or violent behavior. Jesus’ life and ministry are nothing if not a frontal assault on evil, oppression and injustice. Thus, his admonition to “turn the other cheek” when stricken does not mean that aggression is not to be resisted at all. It does mean that aggression is not to be resisted with counter-aggression. Violence is not an arrow in the disciple’s quiver. But there are numerous means by which aggression can and should be resisted that do not involve violence or equate with vengeance. The insistence that violence is sometimes unavoidable is grounded more in a lack of imaginative faith than in “realism.”
Forgiveness does not mean that wrongful acts have no consequences. The harms done to others live on, regardless whether they have been forgiven. They will continue to have ramifications into the future. Forgiveness, however, opens up the possibility for redemption. Sin can be that which needs constant justification, excuses and rationalizations, all of which keep one bound to the past. Or, thanks to forgiveness, it can be a turning point, an opportunity to abandon destructive courses of conduct and pursue “a more perfect way.” It is precisely because one has been forgiven that one has opportunity for change and reconciliation.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, tells the tale of a meeting between an aged seaman and a young guest on the way to a wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man and relates to him his near death experience on the sea. While sailing in the Antarctic Ocean the mariner’s ship is caught in a storm and driven into icy waters. Lost and directionless, the ship meets with an albatross, a large sea bird, that leads the pilot safely through the ice into open water. For no reason in particular, the Mariner shoots the albatross with his cross-bow. Thereafter, things go badly for the ship as it sails into the doldrums, drifting aimlessly over the sea with no wind to propel it. The rest of the crew succumbs to thirst, leaving only the mariner alone and near death on a ship full of corpses. Through numerous dangers and surreal adventures, the ship is brought safely to the mariner’s homeland. During his long ordeal, the mariner comes to recognize the gravity of his cruel and thoughtless killing of the albatross. He comes to understand his frailty and vulnerability, his inescapable dependence on all living things, the natural elements and his fellow human beings. Most importantly, he comes to know the mercy of a God who spares his life though he was the least deserving among the crew. Forgiveness has not been wasted on this mariner and his redemption did not come cheap. The poem is the antithesis to Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I offer here the parting words of the ancient mariner to the wedding guest. I encourage you to read the entire poem at the Poetry Foundation Website.
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.
O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772- 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. He also had a major influence on American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist who was rigorous in the careful reworking of his writings. Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression. He was physically unhealthy, suffering the ill effects from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He was treated for these conditions with drugs that helped foster a lifelong addiction to opiates. Despite these impediments, Coleridge was enormously prolific as a writer and critic. You can read more about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.
 Thus, the lectionary’s coupling of Jesus’ interchange with Peter and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is potentially misleading.