Breaking Cycles

 
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Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Breaking Cycles

When I think of forgiveness some extraordinary examples that come to mind. I think of the Amish response to a school shooting in 2006. More recently was the response to Dylan Roof, who opened fire on a Bible Study at an African American Church in Charleston. You can see video of the court proceedings, in which a family member of one of the slain says of her loved one, “I will never, ever hold her again” and in the same breath, “But I forgive you.” Even more recently, the father of Heather Heyer, the woman who was mowed down in Charlottesville, forgave his daughter’s killer who, to my knowledge, remains unrepentant. With the anniversary this past week, I am reminded of questions about forgiveness being applied to the attacks on September 11, 2001.

These are extraordinary examples. I wonder what experiences of forgiveness you have received, a time when you knew you had it coming and then, without warning, you were offered grace or understanding. What did it feel like the moment you were let off the hook? What about when you have extended forgiveness to someone else, how did that feel? Those feelings are indicators. They tell us something either from deep down in our biology or our soul--I don’t know why it must be one or the other.

My comments assume those feelings were good, but I know it is possible for forgiveness not to feel good, especially when you have been pushed into it or put in the position of granting forgiveness over and over again for the same transgression. You can start to feel taken advantage of. Perhaps you, yourself, are a repeat offender, against your best intentions, and you have felt the dirtiness of putting a loved one through something repeatedly.

Even the best teachings can have a shadow side and can be misapplied, which is why it’s a little tricky when Peter comes to Jesus and asks him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” a holy number of completion, “Not seven times,” responds Jesus, “but I tell you, seventy-seven times,” and some versions read, “seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:21-22). “Again and again,” Jesus seems to say, with no prerequisite stipulation.

Is that always what’s asked of us? Should the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault be required to forgive their assailer 77 times, in effect believing their faith requires them to take it? Is that what Jesus wants? No, the life of faith involves exercising more discerning wisdom than merely regurgitating biblical teachings. Among other reasons, there are contradictory teachings in the Bible. On the forgiveness theme, in Luke it says there is no forgiveness for those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (Lk. 12:10), while in Romans it tells us that all who call upon the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). In Ephesians, it says that we are saved by grace and not works (Eph. 2:8-9), while in James we are reminded that by works we are justified not faith (James 2:24).

The Bible does not speak with one voice, the singular voice of God. As we have said before, borrowing Brian McLaren’s terminology, the Bible is not a book; it is a library. It is a conversation not an edict. Wisdom is knowing which pieces of the conversation, which perspectives, are most helpful in arriving at God’s shalom in any given situation.

Consider the context of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness here. Peter asks him a question, and it’s clearly about the church. In other words, it’s a question about how to operate within a community, and Jesus seems to be using forgiveness as the tool to serve a higher good, keeping the community, with a shared vision and a common set of values, and a mutual commitment, intact. That is not to say that examples of forgiveness expressed beyond one’s community, such as the extraordinary cases discussed earlier are unfaithful. Many will talk about how offering forgiveness sets the forgiver free, and who am I to get in the way of someone offering that incredible, sometimes transformative gesture, if it comes from within? I will not, however, impose that expectation on someone who has been wronged. A World War II vet, who had seen awful things, including his men die, once expressed guilt over his inability to forgive those he faced. Would Jesus have me lecture him on forgiveness?

Now, I am going to say something that may surprise you. I’m not convinced this teaching is really about forgiveness. “What?” you say. “The whole exchange is about forgiveness!” I already said I believe forgiveness is a tool serving a higher purpose. For a clue about that purpose, look at what episode follows right after this brief exchange, what, in fact, gets far more space in the text. It’s a parable in which Jesus tells about a slave owner who wipes clean the debt of one of his slaves, but how that slave does not to the same for their debtors and his judged because of it. This is a teaching about breaking cycles that harm people and, moreover trap them in repeated harm. I believe Jesus is primarily concerned with the need to break those cycles. Forgiveness for wrongdoing, or sin, like forgiveness from debts, helps release people from the cycles that keep them down, keep them captive, allows them to have a clean slate and begin anew. Break the cycles.

Now, look at today’s Older Testament passage, written by people who understood that God had drowned Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea so they could escape slavery and be free. Again, you might say, “Wait a minute! I thought this was about breaking cycles of violence!” Two things should be pointed out here. First, it is God who commits the violence here, not the people, and in its own way, this too removes the people from participating in the violence. Just as it says in the Newer Testament, “never avenge yourselves…leave room for the wrath of God…‘Vengeance is mine’…says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). God takes the violence out of our hands.

Second, note how the heirs of that story have developed in their understanding of it. You see biblical narratives are not complete. They are snippets of stories that are still unfolding as we engage with them today. If you have been to a Passover Seder, a Jewish ritual that commemorates the exodus from slavery, you may be familiar with the act of removing a drop of wine from the cup to dampen the celebration of liberation that came at the expense of other of God’s children, as Rabbi Daniel Brenner puts it. This is not about the math of equating symbolic drops of wine to the blood of innocent, or even guilty, people. It is a symbolic recognition that even in being given their own freedom, they have participated in a violent cycle, or at least benefited from violence, and thus it is an occasion not just for celebration, but also mourning. Elsewhere, I have encountered Jewish prayers for the Egyptians, their oppressors, who, in their own way, were victims, not just because of the retribution they suffered, but because many of them were caught up in the hurt because of the decisions of the powerful in their midst. There’s a great midrash about the Egyptian children begging their fathers to let the Israelites go, but the men, and of course, Pharaoh, refused. In violence, in oppression, even the perpetrators are harmed. Breaking cycles of violence benefits everyone.

This is a theme of the biblical witness. In Genesis, God brings the flood to wash away wickedness, sparing only a remnant with Noah. Afterwards, God retires God’s war bow in the sky—that’s what the rainbow is—and says “I will never again” do this again, even though there is no indication humanity is any different (Gen. 8:21). This is God promising not to get caught up in a cycle of transgression and retribution with creation ever again. God unilaterally removes God’s self from that way of being in relationship, breaking the cycle. Similarly, when God makes the covenant with Abram, God promises to bless him with descendants, and it is a one-sided agreement (Gen. 15:17). God requires nothing from Abram, preventing the cycle of transgression and punishment from ever beginning, forgiving, you might say, in advance. And, let us not forget Jesus who would endure the cross, asking for forgiveness for his killers while upon it, in an ultimate act of refusing to participate in the cycle of violence, which is the hallmark of false power.

Speaking of violence and false power, a Jewish friend of mine shared this quote from a speech given on September 11, and I’d like to share it with you to close. Part of it appears on your bulletin cover.

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.

I was reminded of a statistic this week. Just shy of 3,000 died in those awful attacks on September 11, 2,997 if I have my numbers correct. As the result of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, which followed, estimates vary, but we have killed at least 500,000 and perhaps as many as 1.2 million Iraqis, though they were not involved in the September 11 attacks. Not quite 3,000. At least 500,000. In addition to what was lost, what opportunity was squandered to break age-old cycles?

That quote I just read to you was made on September 11, but not on September 11, 2001 or 2002 or even 2017 in commemoration of those awful attacks. It was made by Swami Vivekandanda at opening of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, September 11, 1893. I left the year off your bulletin cover. The Swami continued

But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
Our greatest challenge is not revenge. It is recognizing the futility of the project of perpetuating the cycle. It amounts to endless peddling of pain. Our challenge is employing every tool we’ve got to end the cycles of harm into which we’ve been born and indoctrinated, and to realize for once and for all, we share the same goal. Amen.

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