17 September – The unforgiven forgiven

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Pentecost 15

Romans 14:1-12
Psalm 103
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. I’ll not continue to 77 times (much less 70 x 7 times – an alternative translation)! Jesus clearly sees forgiveness an important part of the life of the community of his disciples. So far as it depends on you, forgive. We might add to this, so far as it depends on you, seek forgiveness and to live a forgiven life. And here we strike a problem for the forgiven life.

The parable Jesus uses to illustrate the nature of forgiveness is clear enough in itself. A slave with an impossibly large debt has it forgiven and yet is unwilling to forgive another slave a miniscule obligation. The comic difference of the debts illustrates the failure of the one who is forgiven. We learn that, having been forgiven, we are expected to become forgiving. The kingdom of heaven is like this.

We’ve noted before that the parables are not properly allegories in which the characters or exchanges are codes for characters and events in our typical experience. This parable, however, lends itself quite well to being read as an allegory: the king is God and the slaves are us; the king is clearly merciful and just and we are taught to honour and to echo that mercy and justice.

Let us, however, change the parable along these lines: A slave owes a great debt to another slave. She is called to account for what she owes, but cannot pay it. She begs, then, for more time to pay but he is unwilling, and requires that she and her family and possessions be sold in order to pay for what she owes. The king – their master – however, hears of this, and forgives her the debt she owes to the other slave, saving her from the loss of everything. The one to whom she owed the great debt is left without satisfaction. Is the kingdom of heaven also like this? For there seems to be an injustice here, to which we might strongly object – especially if we are the ones left without repayment.

And yet, consider the way we speak of God’s forgiveness in the church. Does not the liturgist invite us to confession of sin and then declare a word of forgiveness, in response to which we express our thanks and sing a doxology? And is not that confessed sin usually “real” sin, concrete in real interactions with real people, most of whom are not here and not party to this exchange of confession and forgiveness? To put the question most concretely, How can I be forgiven by God for sins against another person who would still hold me to account for that sin, who still withholds her or his forgiveness (or, perhaps, is dead)? Here we speak of ourselves as “fully” forgiven – for God does not half forgive – and yet the effect of our sin continues in the rupture between me and the one I’ve hurt.

We might put our question about forgiveness from God a little differently: What does it mean to be forgiven – to be in right relation to God – and still to be labouring under the effects of sin? To this framing of the question, the following answer can be put: to be living in right relation to God and yet also to continue to labour under the effects of sin, is to be living the life of the incarnate Son, Jesus. What else is the life of Jesus but that of a human being living in right relation to God? And what else is the life of Jesus – culminating and so defined in his death – but a life lived with the effects of sin?

We can say, then, that it is possible to be reconciled to God and yet still be unreconciled to those who have not forgiven us, simply because Jesus the incarnate Son lived precisely this life – our life. His was a life lived in full orientation to God. The fullness of this orientation for us is that which divine forgiveness brings; God does not “half” forgive. The life of Jesus was also lived in full orientation to the world and its lack of reconciliation within itself. Jesus lives fully oriented towards God – we might even dare to say, Jesus is “forgiven” – and yet still has enemies, is still unforgiven by the world.

“Christian forgiveness,” then, is not so much being “forgiven” our sin as simply being given – to put on as our own – the humanity of Jesus with its double orientation – to-and-from God and to-and-from the broken world.

Talk about Jesus as human and divine is not, then, abstract and groundless speculation on his nature or character. This “dogma” goes straight to the heart of the affirmation we happily make about forgiveness, and sadly make about the continued brokenness of the church and of the world and about our part in that brokenness. We need to be able to say how it is that we can speak of ourselves as whole before God – as restored, forgiven – knowing that we continue in broken relationships, with debtors and accusers who have no interest in whether God has “forgiven” us or not. To put the matter more “theologically”, we need to be able to say how perfecting divine action meets imperfect human actions. This is what the Christ-dogma does.

In fact, the church does not actually say how this is possible, for the how is a “mystery” – an impenetrable and yet clearly given thing. So the church says simply that the divine and human coincide. It says this not primarily in its dogma about the humanity and divinity of Christ; that comes later. What comes first, and gives rise to the dogma, is the declaration of forgiveness we dare to utter here every week. Here the church declares that it is possible that grace and ungrace can come together without confusion of the two, without the one changing the other, without radical division, without separation. Not only is it possible, it has happened in Jesus. And so, in one of its early councils (Chalcedon 451ad), the church declared what I’ve just said: that in Jesus the truly and holy divine meets the truly and broken human in the most intimate of ways, and yet “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” of the divine and the human.

This sounds like hifalutin and so quite “optional” theological speculation but its meaning for us is that we can make a Christian declaration of forgiveness: you are forgiven by God for things you have done to people who have not forgiven you. It is the understanding of Jesus as the coming together of the divine and human which makes this affirmation possible. If Jesus is “only human”, then God is unjust in forgiving us our sins. Forgiveness from God, then, takes place to the extent that we are “in” Christ, to the extent that we become the Body of Christ: even if someone holds something against us, we can still receive forgiveness from God for whatever that thing is.

At the same time, this does not make the brokenness of our worldly relationships go away. The wholeness of the humanity of Jesus did not mean that the ongoing effect of broken human relationships did not continue. Jesus dies on the cross – fully in right relation to God, fully in the antagony of being human. And we might expect the same for ourselves, one way or another. This is not necessarily “good” news, but it is the news of the gospel. It is the “cost” of forgiveness. Faith receives a gift of life in the shadow of death. The death will still come, but it will no longer be death to those who have received the lively gift.

What does all this mean? It means that the grace of God is not “cheap”. To receive forgiveness from God is to be called to suffer unforgiveness in the world.

Let us, then, confess our sin, receive the lively gift of forgiveness, and rise with the courage of freed souls to live alive in this antagonistic and broken world.