Good morning, Christ Church!
God certainly moves in mysterious ways.
Today is Juneteenth. It is a commemoration that I was only vaguely aware of until the events of the last several weeks changed everything. On this day, we remember the emancipation of all enslaved people being finally declared on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, one of the last remaining outposts of the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation was intended to bring to a conclusion one of the two great “original sins” that continue to haunt the soul of this nation.
The first was the massive swindling, forced removal, and gradual extermination of the indigenous peoples of this continent, all in the name of “Manifest Destiny.”
The second, of course, was the brutal abduction and murderous transportation of other human beings, enslaving them, and then treating them like livestock or worse, in order to build the nation’s economy. And while we often like to pretend that these sins have been addressed and are now in the past, we know deep down that nothing could be further from the truth. The power structures established four hundred years ago are still very much in place. The resulting injustices are with us to this day. The sins remain.
Today, of all days, is also the day our Lectionary calls us to read one of the most challenging parables in all of the Gospels. It is often referred to as “the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor” and, as that title suggests, it is all about the real nature of forgiveness, both in the asking for and in the receiving of the same. What better passage could there be for us to think about and pray over on this Juneteenth?
Faithfully in Christ,
Friday, June 19, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
Peter introduces the parable by asking Jesus how often we are called to forgive one another. He thinks he is being generous by suggesting “seven times,” as the rabbinical understanding was three times, but not four. As usual, Jesus explodes this limited approach, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some translations actually give the number as “seventy times seven.” In either case, it is a very big number and implies that, when it comes to God’s kingdom, there is no limit set for the act of forgiveness. Indeed, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I’m not sure how many times I have prayed that prayer, but I have a feeling that it is way past seventy times seven.
These opening verses are fairly easy to understand. After that, it gets difficult. In comparing the kingdom of heaven to the actions of this king, should we understand the king to represent God? Personally, I don’t think so. Slavery does not exist in heaven. I believe that Jesus is making use of imagery based on the collective experience of his audience to make his point. This is a human king who, at first, bases his decision on the law of the land. However, having heard the plea of his slave, he chooses to wipe clean his very heavy debt and sets him free.
That is why the subsequent behavior of the slave is so outrageous. Encountering a fellow slave who, frankly, owes him a lot less than he owed the king, he decides to have his neighbor thrown into the debtor’s prison. His neighbor also asks for forgiveness, but the first slave, having just been forgiven an enormous debt, refuses to do the same.
We can immediately guess the outcome of the parable. The king, having heard the reports from the first slave’s distressed neighbors, and realizing that his slave has learned nothing from his own experience of forgiveness, turns him in for the punishment he initially deserved. The parable ends with the very uncomfortable admonition from Jesus that, “So my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Ouch.
Again, it is a complex parable and open to a variety of interpretations. But I think there are several takeaways that are clear:
The act of forgiveness is always a two-way street. As we find in the Lord’s Prayer, we really can’t ask for forgiveness if we are not prepared to forgive those who have sinned against us. As was the case for the “Unforgiving Debtor,” to receive forgiveness without a willingness to forgive others is to miss the point entirely and thus to not really know forgiveness at all.
Likewise, to ask for forgiveness without any real intention of changing our lives, our attitudes and behaviors, is not actually a plea for forgiveness. There is no real contrition present in our request. There is no real desire for healing whatever is broken in our lives and in our relationships. Without that act of contrition, we are just mouthing empty words.
Finally, true forgiveness can never be just a matter of words. The act of forgiveness, both in the asking for and in the receiving, requires action. It demands that we proactively seek to restore love, justice, and mercy for those we have wronged and, yes, for those who have wronged us. The king was willing to act on behalf of his slave and forgave him all his debt. The slave was not willing to do the same. We have received God’s ultimate forgiveness in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How will we respond to that grace, that gift of love, justice, and mercy, today? How will we act?