In October 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Oberammergau, Germany, with the saints of Green Mountain Presbyterian Church to see the once-every-decade Passion Play.
On the way, one of our stops was at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Going into the trip, I had reservations about what that experience would be like. Once there, I felt a heaviness throughout my body. While passing through rooms displaying mounds of hair that had been removed from victims and the discarded possessions of stolen lives, I left the formal tour.
I found the experience to be overwhelming. I needed fresh air to breathe. I felt deep sadness and anger at the human injustice. I could not imagine how any human being could commit such atrocities against a fellow human. Forgiveness never entered my mind.
Several years before I experienced a similar reaction in the airport in Charleston, SC, while walking through the memorial for the hate crime victims killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 after welcoming their murderer, Dylann Roof, into Bible Study, sharing with him the gospel of Jesus the Christ. Forgiveness was not the first emotion that entered my mind after learning of the murders. Yet days after this horrific event, members of the victims’ families did just that: they forgave their loved one’s murderer.
My guess is that the families will not and cannot ever forget the inhuman deaths or the deep pain they experienced. Nevertheless, they found the strength through their faith to extend forgiveness to the one who caused their suffering.
This morning, after the call to worship, we prayed the Prayer of Confession, thanking God for the gift of generosity beyond measure that we continually receive, asking for the faith to love and forgive as God loves and forgives us, followed immediately by words of assurance of God’s absolute forgiveness in and through our Savior, God’s gift of unwavering love restoring us to new life.
Later, we will again petition God in prayer for forgiveness “. . . and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . ..” echoing Jesus’ instruction to disciples on how to pray and the reason. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
What are we really asking? Why do we pray for forgiveness? Is it to avoid retribution, or is it because we are complicit in injustice that causes suffering for which we require reconciliation with our God and our fellow humankind?
We don’t know the exact issue that confronted Jesus’ followers that triggered Peter to ask Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” I surmise that many of us struggle with forgiveness and have the same question as Peter when we are confronted with sin, personal or communal in nature. I know that I do.
Jesus’ radical response to Peter is a parable of hyperbolic absurdity to make his point – there is no end to the requirement to forgive.
One commentator cautioned against equating the king in the parable to God, for it is not God’s desire to torture sinners; God desires repentance and reconciliation with those who are created in God’s image for our actions or inaction in response to human suffering.
The absurdity in the servant pleading with the king is that the debt owed is so large that it could never be repaid. Ten Thousand talents were roughly 10 million days’ wages – a sum so great that one individual could never earn enough to repay the debt. Despite the enormity of the debt owed, out of “pity” as translated in the NRSV or translated as “compassion” in other Bible translations, the king forgave the servant the debt without hesitation. Unlike the forgiving king, when a fellow servant made a similar request for a much smaller debt, the unmerciful servant sought revenge, showing no compassion. He did not extend forgiveness and had his fellow servant thrown into prison where of course, the servant had no opportunity to earn wages or repay the debt – perhaps resulting in a life sentence.
Jesus offers this radical response to highlight the character of a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, who does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our iniquities. This is our blessed assurance.
Forgiveness does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior – we should never forget the atrocities committed by the Nazis against our Jewish sisters and brothers and other non-Aryan peoples. The families of the Charleston victims will never forget the slaughter of their loved ones based on ethnic hatred.
As disciples of our Savior, we should never forget or accept structural injustices that oppress the least of those in God’s kin-dom who suffer from mistreatment by individuals or systems, including within the church. We are called to acknowledge, accept, repent, and reconcile our own complicity within such systems and as individuals, if we are to bring to fruition the beloved community as Christ’s followers.
Our God is merciful. Humanity must view itself humbly in a mirror that is not dimly lit, with the self-awareness that to know God, we must see ourselves clearly as needing God’s forgiveness – for we too are in the hot seat much like the unworthy servant – asking God to forgive our debts.
We may find it difficult to forgive another for wrongs against us because of our own pride and the deep and ongoing hurt it causes and seek redress for the injustice.
Perhaps our lack of the real sense of how much God has forgiven us results in holding on to the pain. Forgiveness is not to deny the hurt; it is to release the wrong, to let it go. It is not necessary to forget unjust behavior. There are things we should never forget or accept: inhumane treatment, denial of freedom and liberty, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of children and women, mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, lies, abuse, betrayal, structural racism, systemic poverty – those things that turn lives upside down.
Presbyterian Minister Marjorie Thompson wrote:
To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…. Forgiveness involves excusing people from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.
Forgiveness is the heart of Jesus’ gospel message. Forgiveness is both our gift and our challenge. Today’s parable awakens us, as the Church of Jesus Christ, to the character of our triune God’s mercy, the largess of God’s love. God’s forgiveness is the transformative power that allows us to live a forgiving way of life. When we are forgiving, we are acknowledging and accepting God’s forgiveness.
As forgiven Christian friends, Central Presbyterian Church acknowledges the great cloud of witnesses, the saints that have gone before you and left gifts to Central through bequests, and it is the recognition of the ways their gracious generosity is strengthening the present and future ministries at Central.
Today’s Gospel scripture speaks to a foundational element of the Christian community. A community that thrives that is vital because it seeks to change structures to bring about justice, engaging in peaceful acts and offerings of love with the expectation of living in a community engendering peace and communion with its fellow humanity.
Today, Central acknowledges what has been given by God through those saints. The miracle in Jesus’ parable is that a community that seeks to dismantle structures of injustice with acts of love and forgiving compassion is the community God desires for humanity to return God’s endless love and forgiveness.
May it be so.
Please pray with me.
God forgive our sins this day and banish from our hearts any self-righteousness that would withhold forgiveness of others. For you alone are the judge of human hearts, and your mercy is boundless.