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When I was in seminary one of my best friends and I got in this wild fight. We had been close when he won his 1st date with a boy he brought me back a present from Chinatown. And I don’t remember exactly how it started we ended up spending months without speaking to each other. I think seminary is unique because you’re learning about things that are so personal that it leaves you a little vulnerable. And all the classes were in one building, so you couldn’t escape each other. We’d see each other in the halls, We had the same friends. Unkind words were said and I’m certain none of them were said by me.
Until one day, Shrove Tuesday, so years ago last week ago, we were the only 2 people in the hallway about to pass and he said: “Hello Leanne,” I said: “You haven’t talked to me in 2 months and you think you can just say ‘Hi’?”
We sat down the next day and talked through what had happened. It wasn’t really about each other, it was our own stuff crashing into each other, and made it impossible to be friends for a while. We cried, we laughed, we went shopping for jeans.
I probably learned more about what it means to live in community and handle conflict in those 3 years of seminary than I did my whole life before.
My guess is most people don’t like conflicts. We were avoided if given the opportunity. We pretend our feelings weren’t hurt and just try to breathe through it and let it go, which is usually pushing to down until everything blows up: like how the first debtor to the second debtor when so much as been pushed down and built up literally or metaphorically leads to choking the life out of another.
As children, we often focus on the one who needs to apologize. “Say you’re sorry and then you can go back to being friends.” Sometimes it’s just words that you say and sometimes there were words that you mean. And sometimes no one felt any better when it was over.
We’re told clichés like “forgive and forget.” We’re taught to “let it go and just move on.” We’re taught that forgiveness is supposed to be a reset, to go back to the way things were before. It’s not really easy to forget, so we end up pretending. This is cheap forgiveness, with no accountability or learning or consequences. Forgiveness might be unconditional but reconciliation probably should be.
The only way to never find yourself in a situation where will never need to seek forgiveness or to forgive is by never risking your heart your emotions or yourself with other people. But to love or care for another person is to risk being hurt. Whether it is by a significant other, your child, a friend, or maybe even sometimes even by someone/s who are church.
Because to be church is to be community, to be part of community, to live as community with other people and all of their beauty and uniqueness and flaws and imperfections. Jesus understood this. Jesus understood the struggle to live together, to be in community together, to work through and past all of the difficulties and disagreements we were inevitably going to have because we’re just people doing what we can and our best in any given moment, and sometimes our best isn’t great.
Jesus teaches them that there is this increased level of accountability and responsibility. If you have done me wrong, it would be great if we could work it out together. If we can’t, someone else comes in; and if we all can’t together, we bring in the community. It does a couple of things for us: If I, the offended, am full of crap and it’s really about my own past trauma, there’s a community who’s gonna come alongside me and hold me accountable, maybe help me process. Or if there is an offense, and that person is abusive, because statistics say you or someone you know has been or is or will be in some kind of abusive relationship, Jesus is showing an increasing invitation of community accountability and increased distance between abuser and abused.
If they won’t take accountability, or change, or they won’t apologize and ask for forgiveness; if they won’t make amends and educate themselves; if they won’t repent, turn back to the tenets of this community centered on Christ’s teachings–it says then to treat them like you would treat a tax collector and a Gentile. And it sounds terrible until you remember those were the people Jesus was inviting to follow him. We treat them with the opportunity to follow Christ anew. It’s an invitation–a re-invitation–to turn back to a way of life that lives in community of love, compassion, empathy, generosity, and justice. It does not say there ought not be consequences, and it might be that that invitation to a Christ-centered community isn’t somewhere else for the healing of those who have been hurt, but it doesn’t mean they are outside of the love of God. Some people will choose not to accept the invitation. You will not be reconciled to everyone you seek forgiveness with and from.
Which I guess brings us to the question of what is the point of the forgiveness? Is the point reconciliation? Is the point to go back to the way things had been before? Can you forgive someone who doesn’t ask for it or chooses not to receive it?
If the opposite of forgiveness is mercilessness or punishment or vengeance, it is no wonder that Jesus teaches a way of living that is the opposite of those. They say those who seek that revenge ought to take two graves, and I’ve wondered if it’s because you will lose some sense of who you are when you focus your energies on seeking vengeance, while you hold onto that little piece of bitterness and feed it until it consumes all of you. It doesn’t stay contained, it starts to ooze out into other relationships, damaging even the ones that you love.
There are physical and psychological consequences to un-forgiveness–the increased stress that might keep you up at night, which is probably one of the reasons one’s immune system begins to fail, increased blood pressure, depression, anxiety. It binds us up, it chains us up into ourselves, and to the other person. As long as we hold on to that pain, as long as it remains unaddressed, we are connected, chained, bound to the person who has done us wrong. And there are things that we do when we can’t seems to manage the psychological and emotional issues we have, often those are addictive and in the long term more damaging.
This is why making amends whenever possible and safe and won’t make things worse for the other person is one of the steps of overcoming addiction, but so is forgiving. It’s never too late, even if the person who remains un-forgiven, whom you are bound to is long gone or dead, forgiving is as much about setting yourself free as it is about setting them free. We start with empathy. There’s a generation of young people who are having enough therapy to love their parents and see the ways that their parents failed them. Empathy lets us realize they did the best they could with what they knew, with what was available to them. We can share that with ourselves, setting ourselves free with empathy and forgiveness that we did what we had to do to get through those times with the resources we had.
Empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and an invitation to follow Christ, even if it isn’t an invitation back into our lives.
And Jesus free enforces that truth with a parable.
Lest we ever forget, a parable tells a truth about the world, it isn’t necessarily a one-to-one correlation about who God, because… the end of this story.
The 1st debtor is approached by the king and told he needs to pay back his debts, 150 talents. A talent is equal to 15 to 20 years’ wages, around 7 billion dollars, it’s supposed to sound wild! I’m not sure if the first hearers would have laughed or gasped. But I have some questions: Why did he need that size of a loan? We just got a loan, it was a lot of paperwork, did they check his debt to income? Where did all of the money go? Why did the king loan him that quantity of money knowing this man could never possibly pay it back? He asks the king for patience, for a little more time, like that was going to make a difference!
The king, moved with compassion and empathy for this man who was literally drowning in debt, and taking his whole family with him, the king just writes it off.
Imagine the joy and the celebration the relief, imagine the bonds being released, the chains being dropped, the freedom of forgiveness.
But he’s wasn’t all free. He held on to some bitterness, some anger. When he saw a man who owed him a 100 denarii, a day’s wage–less than a year’s labor, the man who had been forgiven lifetimes of debt lashed out in vengeance and anger and violence. The un-forgiveness, the bitterness, this anger he was holding on to resulted in the most irrational response of throwing the 2nd man in prison, where he wasn’t going to be able to work off his debt. The man forgiven much but full of unforgiveness would get nothing.
And the king is told what has happened and he had the first man, the man he had forgiven, thrown in prison. The man forgiven much’s lack of empathy and compassion and forgiveness; his commitment to his anger and bitterness and violent response was a chain that bound him to the second man… and himself. It kept him from the fullness of life and a life with his family. It was his un-forgiveness that was a prison he made himself and bound himself in, were the chains he wrapped himself in.
Living in forgiveness loosens the bonds on ourselves and loosens the bonds on others so that all of us might have the opportunity to live in freedom, and whole and abundant living. Forgiveness loosening the chains that bind us, giving us all an opportunity for kingdom living in this world today. The kind of living and life where there is empathy, kindness, and compassion for everyone.
Close your eyes, take a breath. Do you feel a chain? Does it go back all the way back to your driving to church? To your childhood? Feel its bonds, where you’ve fed it. Maybe you can look at that other person, that moment with empathy. Maybe you can look at yourself with empathy. Offer yourself grace, maybe you needed to have that chain to keep you safe for a while. Take a breath. Are you ready to put it down? Let go of the bitterness and anger, and forgive?