The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints Boise
September 17 2023
For a Gospel reading about forgiveness, the parable sure puts a damper on the lesson. The King forgives a slave an impossible level of debt – more than an average person could pay back in two lifetimes! That slave then goes out forgiven and pleased, and instead of paying it forward and giving forgiveness to a fellow slave who owes him, the forgiven slave grabs the other fellow and demands repayment, throwing him into debtor’s prison. The King, upon hearing this development, grabs the forgiven slave, undoes the forgiveness, and orders him to be tortured until it gets repaid.
Jesus then brings that part home: if you can’t forgive others when you’ve been forgiven, then God will remember that lack of forgiveness and undo the forgiveness given to you.
That’s … hard to handle. It sounds like forgiveness is always conditional. It makes it feel like our forgiveness is never complete, what we’ve done is always ready to come back and haunt us.
I get the lesson, I get it. Yes, you should forgive others from your heart because you are also being forgiven. Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness sets both parties free from being stuck with what happened. Sometimes forgiveness leads to a restoration of relationship; sometimes we have to forgive someone and let them go because the pain is still very real for us. We can forgive someone but we do not have to give them a position to hurt us again. We do not have to let ourselves be abused.
But the feeling that this forgiveness from God is conditional would be too much to handle.
I think of the experience of people in recovery from addiction: for many, there is always the specter of what they did while during active drug addiction. There is the fear that others will throw back at them what they did while under the influence of drugs, that they will never be able to make a new start; they will always be that past self.
That creates so much shame and self-hatred, it makes new hope in relationships so painful. The person struggling with addiction can be aware of the pain they caused others, they can be aware that loved ones do not want to be put into a position to be hurt again.
We want to be forgiven so that we may have a new start, but we also worry that the forgiveness is conditional and we can never mess up again. We want to forgive, but we also worry that the cycle will repeat itself seventy times seven times.
Forgiveness is a messy thing.
And yet, without it, we become cold. We grow a heart of stone. We must learn how to forgive, learn how to forgive well, learn how to ask forgiveness with real contrition in our hearts.
We learn to ask forgiveness by stepping into another’s perspective, seeing what happened for them. We learn empathy. We learn to give forgiveness by stepping into another’s perspective, seeing their desire to change. We learn empathy.
Empathy is what makes forgiveness real.
Turning to our first reading opens this up. Joseph’s brothers try to weaponize forgiveness – they bring up their departed dad’s wishes that Joseph forgive them. They’re terrified. Joseph is second only to the Pharaoh. He could do whatever he wanted. He could hand them over to be imprisoned or worse. Joseph is able to see past their manipulation and see their fear deep down, and he forgives them this. He tells them how he has learned to see their foul deed in selling him into slavery when he was a child – it was a terrible, evil thing to do, and Joseph suffered terribly in slavery and imprisonment. But Joseph felt that something good came out of it – he was able to save his family from starvation. His brothers didn’t justify their actions this way – Joseph as the victim was the one to discern this.
This is messy forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers weren’t really empathizing with Joseph’s childhood suffering, but Joseph was able to empathize with his brother’s fear. That little bit of empathy made forgiveness possible, and this forgiveness also became reconciliation.
Forgiveness is messy, and no manual or sermon or single Biblical story can give us a perfect theology of forgiveness because forgiveness is rooted in the here-and-now, in empathy, in the messiness of life.
We must make judgment calls, we must discern how to forgive, how to ask for forgiveness, how our forgiveness will look.
We must figure out how to live together in the messiness of life. This is what Paul’s letters are ultimately about in so many ways. His letter to the Romans shows us the messy divisions in the first decades of the Church – do we eat meat, even if it’s been sacrificed in pagan temples? Do we worship on Sunday as the Day of Resurrection, or is every day the same? What do we do with the messiness of our theology and our ways of life?
We figure out a way. Not a “live and let live” but a “let us learn some empathy for one another”. We may not agree, we may not be able to ever agree. We may disagree on some hugely important things. But we can learn empathy. That we can do.
Empathy is what makes forgiveness and life possible, it’s what makes life real, it’s what opens our hearts to one another to make a future that is better than what we have now. May God open our hearts to one another – to those we have hurt, to those who ask our forgiveness, to those we cannot agree with. We want a future to be possible. Amen.