Living in a world of forgiveness

Exodus 14:19-31

Psalm 114

Romans 14:1-14

Matthew 18:21-35

©Lauren Martin

Being hurt, hurts – and as we know, relationships are messy. Throughout any given relationship we will more than likely either cause upset or hurt to the other – or be on the receiving end of it ourselves. But how often should we forgive someone? Thankfully, Peter asks for us in the Gospel today.

How many times do we risk this level of vulnerability, opening ourselves to the potential risk of more hurt, or accepting being hurt. Jesus’ answer is essentially that there shouldn’t be a limit on the number of times we offer forgiveness. This response and parable calls us to radical forgiveness. A forgiveness that does not mean we should use or be used, but one that is combined with accountability and just relationships. This radical forgiveness is also a gift of grace.

By the forgiving of this massive debt, the slave was invited into a new way of being, a new world of grace where love and forgiveness abound. Like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door into Oz, the movie changes from black-and-white, into a world of technicolour. The listener of the parable is also invited into the world of grace, just as the slave was when his debts were forgiven. Yet, the unforgiving slave turns down this offer of grace, refusing to forgive his fellow slave – essentially condemning himself in the process. The slave chose to leave this technicolour world of grace, compassion, and mercy. This action, this turning away from grace is met with a subsequent returning to the world of debt, retribution, and recompense, leaving him to face the consequences of his actions.[1]  The first slave failed to see himself in his fellow slave.  The gift of forgiveness that was freely given to him was not shared.

Apart from writing off an insanely large debt, this parable tells us that things do not always have to be the way they are. The future is not set in stone, there is a responsibility that we all have. As we share and participate in this gift of grace and forgiveness, we are also called to protect those who are vulnerable and at most risk of harm. At times this may involve condemning the actions of others, but (as Paul reminds us) this condemnation is of the act and not the person.[2]

This act of forgiveness, alongside naming and accepting responsibility for harm caused is the work of reconciliation. Of connecting again with the other and loving our neighbour as our selves. Both in the Gospel reading and Paul’s letter to the Romans, we can see a call to not cause harm to the other, but to reconcile and forgive, and also bear the responsibility of our actions – to be accountable – extending God’s grace and mercy to others. This model allows us to embrace our differences, while we deeply listen to and embrace one another.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we know that underneath this simplicity is the reality that forgiveness is not easy.

Forgiveness is important for the health of communities, but so is justice and accountability for harmful actions and abuses of power.[3]

We are not called to be door mats, constantly trodden down, and forgiving any and all wrongs.

This parable is challenging, as the unforgiving slave is then handed over to torture. If we see God as the king, this reading can be rather problematic. Does this mean that God is unmerciful, harshly punishing those who don’t forgive?

Like the first slave, we are invited into a new way of being (if we choose to accept it). If we reject this offer, if we reject forgiveness, as Andrew Marr wrote, living without forgiveness, which is tantamount to living by vengeance, is torture. It isn’t God who is unforgiving; it is the servant. Clinging to vengeance in the face of God’s forgiveness tortures us with our vengeance for as long as we are imprisoned by it.[4]

Brian Zahnd noted that, the forgiveness of great wrongs is never cheap but always painful, because someone must bear the loss. But when the pardoned servant imprisoned his fellow servant because he was unable to pay, he exited the world of grace and reentered the world of retribution…. In his lust for payback, he had broken the law of reciprocal grace set forth in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ In reverting to the dichotomy of payback or punishment, he had cast himself back into the torturous world of recycled revenge.[5]

This type of forgiveness in the Gospel is not an act of ‘forgive and forget’. This profound forgiveness is letting love overcome the pain and hurt transcending injury and allowing healing to be possible.[6]

It is hard work indeed!

Just as the slave was invited into this new technicolour world, so are we. This is not something forced upon us, but a gift freely given to us. A gift that comes with hard work and responsibility. At times we may not be able to forgive, or we may have to forgive the same person many times a day or a year for an act harm done to us. When the other refuses to take responsibility, when each remembering causes us further harm, when it feels like the pain will never go away – these are so hard to forgive, this is what makes forgiveness so difficult.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and we may need to distance ourselves from those who have caused us harm, for good reasons – including that of our safety. Afterall, forgiveness must be balanced with accountability and justice for all. We may carry the wounds of actions done to us, we may be forever changed by them, but they do not become the totality of our being. Instead, this act of forgiveness acknowledges this pain and damage, and moves us towards healing.

For the times we struggle with accepting forgiveness, this parable reminds us that this is also a call to receive and accept being forgiven. Both receiving and giving forgiveness is part of this gift given to us. Both giving and receiving forgiveness makes us vulnerable, but it also has the power to rebalance, restore and heal.

To forgive we must let go of ego. We must move beyond seeking revenge and recompense to healing. Allowing ourselves to sit in this space of vulnerability. To accept hurt and carry out forgiveness does not mitigate accountability and justice. Our egos protect us, and don’t want us to experience hurt or rejection. It tells us we deserve better, it wants revenge and holds onto the wrongs done to us, like the first slave. Instead of seeking out our fellow slave, we must let go of ego, embracing God’s gift of mercy and forgiveness.[7]

We do not live in a perfect world injustice still remains, but the answer is not found in retaliation. Instead, the path to healing and restoring is found in reconciliation. We are invited to safeguard all Creation, to stand for justice, giving voice to the weak. Standing in solidarity alongside victims of violence, discrimination, abuse, and conflict. Giving voice and support to the most vulnerable, to those most affected by climate change. We are called to challenge systems that cause harm, not allowing forgiveness to be used as a weapon for making others stay silent and/or perpetuating abuse.

We are invited into a world of technicolour, into a world full of forgiveness and grace. This invitation is not one of forgetting, but of restoration and of love. As archbishop 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.” [8]

[1] (Nuechterlein, 2020)

[2] (Bratt, 2023) (Lose, 2017)

[3] (Carroll, 2023)

[4] (Marr, 2016, p. 119)

[5] (Zahnd, 2013, p. 61)

[6] (Milton, 2008)

[7] (Brown, 2015)

[8] (Reflecting on the life and legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2023)