How Often Should I Forgive? – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

Ecclesiasticus 27: 30-28: 7
Psalm 103” 8-13
Romans 14: 5-12
Matthew 18: 21-35

In his recent excellent treatise on contemplative prayer, BECOMING CHIRST, Brian C. Taylor gives this description of redemptive living Jesus frequently referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.

“The quality of life is marked by unconditional love (especially for the powerless), forgiveness, peace, honest encounters with evil and injustice, healing and freedom from all forms of captivity.” Each of us has a Christly identity because through our baptism Christ lives in us. As we live into our Christly identity we experience this Kingdom more and more; we experience Christ’s life in us to a greater degree. Prayer helps us in this regard, and contemplative prayer does so in an intensified way. It moves us into the Kingdom that Jesus promised; it helps us to become Christ.

The pervasive theme of this Sunday’s lessons and Gospel is the paramount importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. The reading from Ecclesiaticus reminds us that the vengeful in this life will face God’s vengeance. “Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” In the Gospel Peter asks Jesus, “How often must I forgive? Seven times? This was the number required for the righteous in the teaching in the book of Genesis. Jesus replies, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times (some translations read seventy times seven). In other words we are to forgive and not keep count if we wish to be the disciples of Jesus. Then Jesus elaborates on this teaching with a parable. An owner demands a reckoning of a debt one of his servants owes him. When it is clear the servant cannot pay, for the debt is very great, the owner intends to throw him into jail. But the servant who owes so much begs for mercy and the owner relents and forgives his debt. The owner acts out of mercy, rather than justice. He has the power to exact every denarii the unfortunate man owes him. But instead, he is merciful and wipes the slate clean. As the forgiven servant leaves his master’s presence, he meets another servant who owes him a small debt. He demands payment and when the servant is unable to pay he has him thrown into jail. The other household servants, outraged by his conduct, tell their owner, who recalls the servant and insists he also pay in full. The moral—God shows mercy to those who are merciful. He demands justice of those who demand justice of others.

Now let’s look at this teaching in the light of our daily lives, our relations with family, friends and neighbors. Are we merciful and forgiving of others their debts to us? The term “mercy” means kind and compassionate treatment of an offender, someone within one’s power. Or do we demand justice, seek vengeance or hold them in captivity until we are satisfied. I want you to think about this seriously, and to do so now because at this Eucharist we participate in a public confession of sin and later, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer before Communion, again beg the Lord to forgive us. Ask yourself this question, “Am I merciful?” Do I forgive or must I always settle the score before I am satisfied? Then ask yourself, “If I hold out for justice for the wrongs actual or perceived done to me, how can I expect God to be merciful to me?” What are those debts others owe me that seem so important? What are those grievances I cling to so determinedly? How long will I be prejudiced toward and suspicious of my Muslim neighbors, or find it difficult to be hospitable to the new gay couple upstairs in my building? What would it be like to forgive the $1,000 debt my cousin owes me and cannot pay? And do so without forever branding my cousin unreliable and shiftless? How long will we hold others in captivity because they are different from us or have harmed us in the past? What holds me back from forgiving my father for not loving me, or forgetting others’ abuse for a mistake made? What holds me back from forgiving myself? Consider how we have responded to the plight of the poor refugees of Hurricane Katrina. Has our personal response been colored by mercy or justice, or worse still, indifference? These are our personal sins. We are all guilty of them from time to time. When we seek God’s forgiveness we may not always be conscious we harbor them within ourselves. Jesus warns us that only if we are merciful to others can we expect God’s mercy.

There are also sins of collusion with evil, sins we commit by our silence and inaction, sins at the community or national level and sins we collude in as part of the Church. We may fail to speak out when we witness or experience oppression. While an overwhelming majority of Anglicans worldwide are persons of color, why are there so few in the pews and positions of leadership in the Episcopal Church? In the angry division currently over human sexuality in the Church why is it so much easier to demonize the opposition from wherever one stands than to be open to differing opinions? Why are we the Church so hesitant to speak out against the abuse of the poor or to work to change the system that is creating a permanent underclass in this country? In this the richest country in the world why do we stand by while so many are denied adequate health care and housing or suitable employment? In our relations with the developing world must our concern for the almighty dollar inform every decision we make? Consider the nations of sub Sahara Africa. When the colonial powers withdrew following World War II little preparation was made for economic stability in the newly independent countries. Raped of their wealth by the colonials, these countries have been kept in poverty by the economic exploitation of first world investors. Is it any wonder they have been open to famine and plague in recent years? Imagine how it would be if we forgave their debts. While the US was never a colonial power in Africa, we have a long history of economic colonialism in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. And through its portfolio the Church has benefited from supporting the governments of oppressive regimes. By our silence we collude with evil.

The English theologian James Alison in a recent essay on forgiveness asserts that we should let the resurrection appearances of Jesus be our guide. After carefully considering each sighting he discovered something unusual about the behavior of Jesus. In none of them does Christ remind his followers of their response to his capture and execution, how they fled or openly betrayed him. He never said, “I can never forgive you for abandoning me when I needed you,” or anything of the sort. Instead, when he encountered Peter and the others for the first time after his resurrection, he cooked breakfast for them. In no way did he try to keep them in thrall through guilt or seek vengeance for their cowardice. Instead, he simply moved forward unencumbered by the debts and trespasses of his disciples. Yet in no way did Jesus deny what had happened to him. Thomas could testify that the Lord’s hands and feet still bore the marks of nails and his side the spear’s wound. To each of those who had followed him he showed mercy. In no case did he exact justice. Alison says that through this model of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation Jesus will lead us to the Kingdom if we desire it.

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  1. Christopher Rivers on September 7, 2012 at 09:05

    So wise and so eloquent. Thank you.

  2. Josephine Lopez DiCalogero on September 6, 2012 at 08:08

    Thank you. I have been keeping one person hostage for all the sins of the past 40 years and is doing so have not been able to see him as he is today. Pray for me that I will unburden him and in the process forgive us both. Blessed Saviour, as you never said a word to your disciples after the resurrection, help me never say a word again to him.

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