Sept 17, 2023
Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 3:10-24, Matthew 18:21-35
You ever wonder how some of the worst events happen, when it takes humans to do something so terrible, you wonder why?
How did the holocaust happen? How did so many humans get involved in killing 6 million other humans?
How do genocides happen, when one race tries to obliterate another race?
How is it that Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis?
Why did Protestants and Catholics fight so much over the years in Europe. Some of us remember Northern Ireland specifically, although previous religious wars in Europe had terrible losses of life?
And yet these were Christians, following the one Lord Jesus who taught we should love our enemies.
How did so many people and nations get caught up in World War 1, when the rulers of Germany, England and Russia were all cousins?
How did so many atrocities happen in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps, or in many other conflicts, wars and insurrections, where prisoners are treated as less than humans? Where they were starved or beaten, or tortured or executed?
I remember a doctor who had been a soldier in World War 2 and captured by the Japanese and put in a POW camp and treated inhumanely.
After the war, he was a church one time, and his granddaughter told him that he had to believe in Jesus, or he would go to hell.
He replied. “I have already been to hell, sweetie.”
How is it that 2000 people can assault the US Capitol building to overthrow what they think is a stolen election?
Are people really that stupid and that evil?
And while the answers to some of these questions about the particulars to each of these conflicts or events might be long and complicated, there is something that I think holds them all together.
People instead of telling their own stories or narratives, are caught up in a bigger story and are being narrated by the story.
These are questions explored by the psychotherapist, Alexandra Asseily who grew up in Lebanon.
She wondered how in 1975 Lebanon transformed from a happy, friendly, interacting place to a place of bombers and killers and snipers. Where did all the rage and revenge come from?
She says it comes from stories.
Every day as a psychotherapist she would listen to stories. People would tell her stories of their lives, or tell her a movie story, or a play, or a book, or a story of someone else, or of their family of their culture, or their ancestors.
There were shameful stories, tragedies, “poor me” stories, victim stories, drama queen stories, crime stories, death stories, wish stories, addiction stories, fairy tale stories, dutiful stories and love stories.
Each of those stories needed to be listened to with compassion, but Alexandra was amazed at the power of these stories to drive lives and to take over lives so that the person was no longer even in control of their life. Their story was controlling their live.
And families and cultures and nations and groups, and religions and sects and cults and terrorist cells, have their own stories that drive them, and when someone lets their own story of tragedy, anger, rage, revenge, victimization or whatever, get hooked into a larger cultural story of tragedy, anger, rage, revenge, victimization or whatever, then the story can fuel a group, or a culture, or a nation into actions that can devastate others.
Eckhart Tolle the spiritual teacher and author talks about painful stories in this way.
When a bunch of ducks are swimming in a pond and it happens that two ducks get in each other’s way, occasionally the two ducks fight. The fight only lasts a few seconds and they swim off in opposite directions flapping their wings vigorously, releasing their surplus and negative energy.
But two humans… if those ducks were humans, they would keep the fight alive in their minds, talking about it for days or weeks or even months, sharing it with friends about the nasty so-and-so, and harbouring grudges, mulling over the story, or fantasizing about revenge, plotting, gossiping etc…
And Tolle goes on to say that we humans create in our minds and bodies something he calls the Painbody. It is the collection of our painful stories all wrapped up into a big story that becomes even bigger than the actual events that happened. And for some, if the story is not managed, or dealt with, or seen to, or let go, all of life is viewed through this big painful story, and every experience of life becomes painful and adds to the Painbody.
And that painful story drives our life.
And so, the psychotherapist Alexandra Asseily asks people questions: Is this a story you want to keep telling? How long have you believed this particular story? Is this a story you have invested in over and over again?
The question is…. how do we transform these stories from painful stories to healing stories?
So let us turn to some biblical stories. First, we will turn to the biblical story of Joseph. It is in my mind one of the pre-eminent stories in the Old Testament for its graceful ending.
Joseph is the first child born to Rachel, the favourite wife of Jacob. You may remember that Jacob fell in love with Rachel promised to work seven years so he could marry her and when the veil was lifted he finds out that he has actually married the older sister Leah. A trick was played on Jacob whom himself had tricked his older twin brother and his father Isaac.
So, Jacob works another seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but Rachel didn’t have children. Leah had children. And when finally Rachel has a child, Jacob spoils Joseph and the older brothers don’t like Joseph, and his dreams or the fact that he is the favourite child.
One day when they are far from home and Joseph is coming to bring them food, they see him coming and plot to kill him. Only one of brothers thinks killing is a bit much and so they sell him to slavers and Joseph ends up as a slave in Egypt
I won’t tell all the story, but Joseph through his dreams and connection to God ends up as Prime Minister in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.
And when many years later his brothers appear and he reveals himself to them, they are worried that he will have his revenge. But Joseph forgives them.
And he even retells the story, saying that God was part of my big story, moving events in such a way as I would be positioned to save my family in a time of drought.
It is a picture of Jesus Christ, a picture of a man who doesn’t let some bigger story control his life, but he controls his own story. And the way Joseph was free of revenge, and free of the narrative of victimization was by forgiving his brothers.
Which leads to our gospel lesson.
Peter comes and asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone.
As a little aside Peter uses the male term “brother.” Some translations to make it more inclusive use the phrase “another member of the church.”
But I just want to be clear that although we are being inclusive with gender, it is not just church people are being talked about.
And to be clear again. The Old Testament talked about forgiveness... the Pharisees talked about forgiveness. Most people believe in forgiveness.
If you didn’t believe in forgiveness, you’d have probably killed your spouse and children by now.
The thing is that most people believe, that before we can forgive another, that other has to jump through a bunch of hoops to be forgiven. That other has to repent and turn around, and say sorry, and make reparations, and wait for the forgiveness.
Sometimes it is put this way by some. That other has to pay for their sin before they can be forgiven.
And think about it for a minute. How easy is it for you to forgive. And do you want them to pay? Do you want them to wait, to do things, to prove that they are worthy of forgiveness? Are there people who have done things bad enough you won’t forgive. Will you forgive even if the person is not repentant?
I want to separate out the difference between the forgiver and the forgiven.
I think if you are the one needing to be forgiven, if you have done something wrong, you should repent, you should say sorry, you should try to make amends where reasonable, you should not presume on anybody that they have to forgive you.
But if someone has wronged you, and you are the forgiver, I think Jesus teaches us something about unconditional love and forgiveness. Jesus’ teaching seems to be forgiveness for everyone all the time.
And on the face of it, it seems crazy. We can all think of terrible people who have done heinous crimes, who are terrorists, or child molesters, or rapists, or who support the wrong sports team.
We can think of those who would laugh at our faces, or symbolical or physically spit in our faces, who are not repentant, who won’t admit wrong, who will not change.
So, should we forgive them?
Let’s hold that thought for a minute as we get into the parable that Jesus told.
And of all the parables, this is probably the funniest of them all, the one which would have made people smile, chuckle or even laugh out loud.
Again, we are just not used to hearing the comedy in the scriptures.
The basic parable is pretty straightforward. A slave owed the king ten thousand talents and couldn’t pay his bill.
So, the king orders the slave and family to be sold along with his wife and children and possessions.
The slave begs for mercy and out of pity the King forgives the debt and lets him go.
Then the forgiven slave runs into one of his fellow slaves who owes him a hundred denarii and grabs him by the throat and won’t forgive him, or give him time to pay, but has him thrown in debtor’s jail.
When the king learns of this, he has the slave brought before him and asks him: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your friend, after I showed you so much mercy.”
Then the kind hands the slave over for torture.
I know it doesn’t sound that funny, but let me put it in a modern context. Let me put it in an Albertan context.
The leader of the Provincial Opposition Rachel Notley owes the government ten billion dollars. The Premier Daniel Smith demands payment and when Rachel asks for mercy, Daniel Smith says: “no worries, you are forgiven ten billion dollars.”
And then Rachel runs into one of her back benchers who owes the NDP party a couple of thousand dollars, and she kicks him out of the caucus and presses police charges against him.
You see the humour in the parable is in the outrageous amount that is forgiven. Billions of dollars.
And with apologies to Rachel Notley and Daniel Smith, this is an illustration and not suggestive of their personal or political lives.
But the point is the amount is so ridiculous, Jesus’ listeners would have laughed. How could a slave even owe that amount? It is ludicrous.
We are talking billions of dollars forgiven. It is outrageous forgiveness, and it speaks to the unconditional love and grace of God, to Jesus on the cross saying to all who killed him and all sinners everywhere: “God forgive them.”
And certainly, the point of the parable is we should forgive others the way God has forgiven us…
But what about the kind of terrible ending when the person who was forgiven didn’t forgive…
The slave is tortured…
Some say that if we don’t forgive others we will be sent to hell after we die.
I don’t believe that is what the parable is saying, partly because if everyone were sent to hell for not forgiving someone, frankly I don’t know who actually would make it to heaven.
But I do believe that if we do not forgive, we end up in torture.
If we end up not forgiving, we end up with painful stories running our lives, and not with us making our own stories.
Annie Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rats to die.
If we do not forgive then the story that ends up running our life is story of all-consuming pain, a story of our identity centered in injury.
If we do not forgive, we often weaponize our anger to hurt others.
If we do not forgive, then the story that informs our life, is not the story of Jesus.
If we do not forgive, we are hostage to the tyranny of bitterness.
If we do not forgive, we are slaves endlessly tortured, unable to pay the debt of sin, because instead of living in forgiveness and living in God, we are choosing to live in sin and hell.
We believe with all our hearts that Jesus sets us free. Jesus sets us free from the consequences of our sin, by forgiving us and loving us and accepting us…
But Jesus sets us free from the sin that hurt us, and Jesus does that by giving us the power to forgive, and to be healed.
Jesus sets us free from every story that a parent, a friend, a peer, an enemy, a family member, a neighbour, a schoolmate, a teacher, a co-worker, a family, a church, a culture, or a nation tried to impose on us, that demeaned us, hurt us, belittled us, put us in our place, or did the same to someone else.
Jesus sets us free from every story that demands we band together against a common enemy and hurt them.
Jesus sets us free from every story that separates us into them, and says the them are worthless, or evil or beyond help.
Jesus sets us free from every story that says we should send someone to hell and throw away the key.
Jesus sets us free from every story that says someone is too evil, too far gone, too something… that they are beyond forgiveness and the gospel.
Dr. Courtney Cowart is a theological scholar who back 22 years ago was working Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street. New York on Sept 11, 2001
Visiting with her that day was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He was there with other Spiritual Leaders filming a Lenten Series about the Shaping of Holy Lives. Courtney and the Archbishop were there in downtown New York, when the terrible 9-11 terrorist attack sent them running for their lives, as the twin towers of the World Trade Centre came down.
The Next day the Archbishop Rowan Williams offered this reflection:
"I'm sure in the city and the country in the days ahead, the pressure to do something, anything, is going to be greater and greater. The rhetoric will become more and more intense. There is something I want to say to that. One very simple personal observation. Quite simply: I wouldn't want what we experienced to happen to anybody. I wouldn't want to see another room of preschool children hurried out of a building under threat. I wouldn't want to see thousands of corpses given over to the justification of some principle. And very simply: I don't want anyone to feel what others and I were feeling at about 10:30 yesterday morning. I've been there."
Jesus is teaching Peter another way. A way not of counting up someone’s sins and making them pay, but a way of healing and life, a better way to deal with conflict and strife; and it is simply to unreservedly forgive.
To forgive seventy times seven. To forgive ten thousand talents. To forgive ten billion dollars’ worth of sin, which is to say to forgive everything.
It is not only the way of Jesus, but the way of Jesus that sets us free from every story that seeks to control us, so that we can write our own story of love.