After a week punctuated by fires, floods, and an earthquake, someone posted a simple, two panel comic strip on Facebook. In the first panel, a pious looking preacher, prays to God, “Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us? It’s because of the gays, isn’t it?” To which the voice of God replies, “Yes, it is.”
Second panel: “I knew it,” says the preacher. “You’re punishing us for their abominations!” “Oh, no, no, no, not at all,” responds God. “I’m punishing you for the shitty way you treat them.”
Now, there was a part of me that enjoyed the smug smirk that crossed my face when I read this. It felt satisfying to see the tables turned for a change. Most of us, no matter how we distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, have internalized the cultural meme that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished. It is a familiar plot device in literature and film, the foundation of our legal system, and a deeply cathartic experience; even more satisfying, when we believe God is on our side.
But my smirk quickly turned to a frown. This comic may work as satire, but it is poor theology. Aside from the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of the punishment it describes, its basic commitment to the reward/punishment scheme doesn’t square with the arc of the biblical story and the image of God it portrays.
When Joseph’s brothers, who, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery, come seeking forgiveness, he assures them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” With tears in his eyes, Joseph forgives them, trusting that God was at work to preserve life even though his brothers intended harm. Having experienced God’s mercy, Joseph shares that mercy with his brothers and provides for them in their need.
St. Paul knew that there is no fight like a church fight. He urges the churches in Rome to welcome those who disagree with them, because God has welcomed them. “Why do you pass judgment on servants of another,” he asks them. It is before the Lord that they stand or fall, and, Paul says confidently, “the Lord is able to make them stand.” Who are we to take the place of God?
And when St. Peter asks Jesus, “how often should I forgive?” Jesus’ response implicitly means there is no limit to forgiveness. Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is a renewable resource. It is inexhaustible. God’s mercy is boundless, and to mercy we are bound.
So, let’s talk about forgiveness and mercy, beginning with forgiveness. I’d like to suggest that forgiveness is a response to people and situations in which we’ve suffered or caused harm. It is a way of healing and reclaiming our freedom.
There are still consequences for the harmful behavior. Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything is now OK. It simply means that the past no longer has the power to define my present reality, and that the possibility of reconciliation exists, so long as all the parties involved are willing to take responsibility for their part. Forgiveness prizes relationship over reward or punishment, without sacrificing human dignity or physical or emotional safety.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. Some harms are so profoundly wounding, and the guilt we carry for having committed them is so debilitating, that forgiveness can take a lifetime. It cannot be forced. It begins by simply acknowledging the harm that has been done. The second step is the recovery of our capacity to acknowledge the humanity of the victim or the perpetrator, perhaps by becoming willing to hold them in prayer. It may proceed to the offer and acceptance of forgiveness. In some cases, as with Joseph and his brothers, it can even lead to the restoration of relationship.
Note that forgiveness does not depend on the action of another. If harmed, I do not need wait upon the repentance of the perpetrator to forgive. If I have harmed another, I do not need wait upon the forgiveness of my victim to repent and amend my life. In either case, I simply must become willing to take responsibility for my part in the process of healing and restoration of freedom.
We always begin with forgiveness, for it is freedom from the past that makes the healing of wounds and the amendment of life possible. When we are no longer defined by the harms we’ve suffered or caused, we can begin to live again. Reward and punishment become quite secondary to the primacy of being alive.
Forgiveness is not simple or easy, but without it, spiritual growth is stifled and viable community becomes impossible. It is the key that unlocks the vicious cycles of despair, resentment, remorse, and vengeance that make our world a living hell. Forgiveness is hard work. It is utterly dependent upon the inexhaustible mercy of God.
Mercy is deeper and broader than forgiveness. I think of it as the background atmosphere of forgiveness, the oxygen that we need to engage particular acts of forgiveness. Mercy is the “existential forgiveness” that comes with simply being alive, recognizing the enormous debts we owe to our ancestors, to society, to the Earth community, and ultimately to God; debts that we can never possibly repay. Mercy is the powerful experience that this “debt” is forgiven; that there is nothing we need or can do to repay it, no way we can be worthy of it. It is pure gift, quite apart from questions of punishment and reward.
In one of her essays, Margaret Atwood relates the true story of the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton. On his 21st birthday, Ernest had an unusual bill presented to him by his father. It was a record of all the expenses accrued while raising him, beginning with the fee charged by the doctor who delivered him. The bill was now due. Ernest’s father was implicitly saying, “I’ve met my obligation. Now pay up, and we are even.” It assumes moral relationships are like business transactions, in which payment of the debt ends the relationship. Ernest paid the bill, we are told, and never spoke to his father again.
Giving and receiving what is due, is not the only way to imagine a moral relationship. A parent imagined in this way, much less acting in this way, is rightly considered a monster. There is also the giving and receiving of gifts, not out of obligation, but as an act of love. Yet, isn’t this the way we too often think about God? As One to whom we owe a considerable debt, beyond our capacity to pay, yet who still presents us with a bill? Which brings me to today’s parable of the unforgiving servant.
Jesus tells this parable, precisely to subvert our usual understanding of God as a divine creditor. Remember that parables are metaphorical in character, not allegorical. The kingdom of heaven is like what is described in the parable, but also unlike what is described, and there is no strict correspondence between say, God and the king in the parable. They are alike and unlike.
In its immediate context, the parable is told in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Does forgiveness have a limit? Jesus affirms unlimited forgiveness. Peter assumed the cultural norm that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished. And, he assumed that he was one of the good guys.
Peter was in danger of being like the unjust slave in the parable. If we owe debts to our ancestors, to society, and to the Earth community, how much more do we “owe” to God? More than we could ever pay. But God doesn’t hold us accountable. All is gift, not debt. We need to reimagine what all our relationships look like considering God’s mercy, and imitate God in this way of being.
The unforgiving slave feels entitled to demand everything owed him, no matter how little it may be. He wants his due, no matter how badly his demands, however formally just, hurt others. Note that the other slaves, when they see what he is doing, are greatly distressed. They are distressed because their fellow slave is bound to the logic of reward and punishment, rather than to mercy, the very mercy he has received so unconditionally.
When his lord discovers what this wicked slave has done, he hands him over to be tortured until his entire debt is repaid. The same language of “handing over” is used when Jesus is “handed over” to the authorities. This correspondence between the unforgiving slave and Jesus subverts our notions of justice – the slave getting what he deserves, while Jesus did not. It isn’t about getting what you deserve. We all owe more than we can ever pay. The question is: will we allow God’s mercy to transform our imagination so that we can share that mercy with others, or will we refuse this mercy and double down on the hell of demanding our due, fueling the cycle of vengeance, rivalry, and violence?
In the ancient world, if you were unable to pay your debt, your creditor could have you imprisoned and even tortured to coerce your family, friends, or benefactors to pay the debt for you. If your creditor was unforgiving, you became dependent on the mercy of others. I wonder if there isn’t a certain irony in this parable, a subtle message that there is no way around mercy. We can realize this the easy way, by accepting God’s mercy and allow it to change us so that we, too, can forgive from the heart, out of love. Or, we will realize it the hard way, coming to see our need for mercy only through our own experience of suffering. Either way, in the end, we all depend upon the mercy of God and each other.
We can forgive from the heart, really forgive as an expression of the mercy we have received from God, or we can remain locked in the torture of strict accounting of reward and punishment. God comes to us in Jesus, not to pay our debt, but to share the gift of mercy; to reveal the bonds of mutual love, not strict reciprocity, that bind us together. We are all to mercy bound.