RCL Reflection for Proper 19, Year A
September 17, 2023*
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
Who benefits from forgiveness–the one forgiven or the one who forgives? The answer is, to varying degrees, both parties. The one forgiven is released from the wrong against the forgiver and is freed to live beyond the shadow of that wrong. The one who forgives is also released in a most profound way, freed from the tyranny of festering anger and closely-held grudges. Yes, both parties to forgiveness have the opportunity to experience freedom, to receive manumission.
Wait…doesn’t “manumission” imply being freed from slavery? Yes, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, usage of “manumission” dates from the early 15th century and is derived from the Latin word manumissionem (nom. manumissio) “freeing of a slave,” noun of action from manumittere “to set free,” from manu mittere “release from control,” from manu, ablutive of manus “power of a master,” literally “hand” (see manual) + mittere “let go, release.”
When we refuse to forgive, we become slaves to ourselves and our emotions. Our anger smolders, our bitterness ripens, and our grudges grow like kudzu. We curve inward, consumed by the injustice we harbor–whether real, perceived, or a little bit of both. Our view of the world and the other becomes warped and clouded. Our bitterness takes on a precious but poisonous tang. Sure sounds like slavery to me!
Jesus, in responding to Peter’s earnest question about just how much forgiveness is enough, responds with an answer that suggests there should be no limits placed on forgiving. He then relays a rather bizarre and disturbing story about how not to forgive. A slave who owes the king an astronomical debt of 10,000 talents (the equivalent of some 3,000 times the amount the slave might hope to earn in a lifetime) is forgiven the debt and set free. Imagine the response to this announcement. Unfortunately, the slave does not go and do likewise to others; instead, he has thrown into prison a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii (roughly 100 days worth of pay). This sum seems paltry in comparison to the forgiveness of the monstrous debt of the slave. When the other slaves run and tattle on him, the king is justifiably enraged and has the unforgiving slave thrown into prison. Forgiveness must have been in short supply that day. Jesus drives home his point by saying that this is the same treatment God will hand out to disciples who fail to forgive.
Is forgiveness easy? No. Not if we are honest about it. Forgiveness, like any other spiritual discipline must be practiced; it is a learned endeavor. In this teaching, Jesus makes it clear that such practice is not optional. Forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to live life as a disciple. It is forgiveness that enables us to see that which is lovable in our enemies and to realize the worth and cost of our salvation. We must never be stingy or selfish with our forgiveness. In short, we must learn to forgive and we must learn this lesson well.
Think of it this way: each Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer in our worship. The fifth petition says “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This is a bold petition because we are asking God to treat us as we treat others. Do we really want that? Are we really ready to be as lavish with our forgiveness as we want God to be when it comes to our own transgresses? Gulp!
Some people may wonder if extending forgiveness means forgetting an injustice and risking harm at the hands of the perpetrator of a wrong. No. This passage from scripture is misapplied when it is employed a way to justify remaining with an abusive spouse, suffering continued bullying or other bad behaviors, or being someone’s doormat. Forgive and stay safe. Forgiving no more implies forgetting than loving implies being best buddies. If that were the case, how could Eva Kor have forgiven Dr. Josef Mengele for the abuses heaped upon her, her twin sister, and countless other victims of Nazi atrocities? How could Mariane Pearl forgive the terrorists who cruelly and publically assassinated her journalist husband Daniel Pearl? Archibishop Desmond Tutu said, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” Remembering and letting go can both be part of the forgiveness equation.
This Sunday promises to be a difficult day for many people in our communities. As the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, emotions will be mixed, hearts still hurting, and grievances unresolved. Just as certainly, other people in our community will be nursing their own “private 9/11s,” memories of attacks against them by loved ones, power structures, and even themselves. How do we as faith communities honor the realities of these dark and painful wounds while lifting up the manumission that accompanies the tough act of forgiveness? This is a tough question, one that requires the presence and intervention of the Holy Spirit forged in the crucible of loving and supportive community.
Mathematically speaking, the kind of manumission God practices is not rational. It is an unequal equation of which we are the beneficiaries. Like the slave, there is no way we can repay the debt we owe. We are totally and completely reliant on divine love, grace, and forgiveness. I don’t know about you, but I sure am thankful God’s math is different from what I learned in school. I am also humbled and challenged by what God requires of me in forgiving my neighbor and my enemy–not just from my rational self but from my broken, wounded, and very human heart. I never was very good in math; I pray that through continued practice I become better at forgiveness.
Blessings on your preaching and teaching this week. May the Holy Spirit enlighten, enliven, and inspire you with the words you need to speak.
Consider using one of these films or excerpts from them in your worship or education time:
“The Hardest Word” is a product of The Forgiveness Project, a British charity founded by Marina Cantacuzino, a freelance writer and journalist. The Forgiveness Project explores forgiveness and reconciliation through individual real-life stories, and promotes alternatives to violence and revenge.
Eva Mozes Kor was nine years old when she and her twin sister were liberated from Auschwitz. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of her liberation, she read a proclamation of amnesty forgiving the Nazis for the atrocities visited on her and so many others. Her act proved to be a controversial one. The documentary film Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2007) chronicles her story. Click here to view the movie trailer. Click here for a link to a short (10 minute) film about Kor and her story of forgiveness.
Here’s an excerpt (2:23) from the movie The Mission showing a powerful illustration of forgiveness.
Visit Dr. Fred Luskin’s website, http://learningtoforgive.com, and explore the nine steps to forgiveness. Luskin is the co-founder of Stanford University’s “Forgiveness Project.”
Consider showing Tyler Perry’s film Madea Goes to Jail (PG-13). Use this clip of an interview between Dr. Phil and Perry talking forgiveness as a springboard to your own discussion about the power of forgiveness to set one free.
Tell a story from your childhood where you received forgiveness for something you did wrong to someone else. Explain how it felt to receive their forgiveness. Ask the children to think about a time when they have been forgiven. Then ask them about a time they have forgiven someone. How did it feel?
Consider showing the Veggie Tales story “The Grapes of Wrath” if you have time.
*This reflection was first published in 2011.