In the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton sends his oldest son off to fight in a duel without his wife’s knowledge. The son is killed, and both Alexander and his wife Eliza are crushed. They move uptown—to where the Hamilton house is now up in Hamilton heights—and the song “It’s quiet uptown” describes their grief “living with the unimaginable.” The death of a child is unimaginable for those of us who have not endured it—as is being married to the person you hold responsible for your child’s death… but the song twists even that loss at the end after Alexander makes a beautiful heartfelt apology, when it conclude with the lines “forgiveness.. can you imagine? Forgiveness…. Can you imagine?”
Can you imagine?
Is forgiveness really the unimaginable? Sometimes I think it might be—for a lot of reasons. Partly because forgiveness means talking about sin; forgiveness means talking about our own sins because we are always in the middle, both sinned against and sinning. Partly because forgiveness is seen as weakness. Partly because in our culture, there seems to be an equating of forgiveness with either forgetting a wrong done to us, or saying that the wrong done to us or others doesn’t matter.
And I’m not sure that today’s Gospel passage is the most helpful in figuring out how, as Christians and followers of Jesus, we are supposed to approach forgiveness. Especially when it’s paired with the Exodus reading about God killing the entire Egyptian army, and their bodies and their chariots and their horses washing up on the seashore.
You have a great Vestry, and we wrestled with today’s Gospel passage at the beginning of our meeting on Monday. And if I could just have had a camera recording our conversation, I would just play that for you today in lieu of a sermon.
We were looking at the contrast between the beginning of today’s Gospel, where Peter comes to Jesus and suggests that forgiving someone seven times would really be a lot and far more than one could possibly expect—unimaginable, even; but then Jesus tops that by saying that forgiveness should be offered not seven times but seventy seven times. And then there is this very odd segue, “For this reason…” into the next story Jesus tells, where the King is merciful only once, and the debtor who is themselves unforgiving ends up in prison being tortured.
One section seems to say that forgiveness must be limitless; the other depicts a sort of karma where whatever you offer to the world comes back to you.
Those are different. Radically different. More different than anyone can explain away with “Oh, it’s the translation” or some subtle shade of historic criticism. I get whiplash between what Jesus says at the beginning and that last line. I want limitless forgiveness for myself… but I’d like everyone else—particularly people I don’t like—one strike and you’re out: you get what you deserve.
Not Christ-like, I know.
Our vestry shared that struggle; we like limitless forgiveness in concept—but we find it hard—unimaginable, really—to practice it. And we recognize that it isn’t always helpful, either—I don’t know how many women—and I know it happens to men too, but so far for me it’s always been women—have been in my office, having been abused by their spouse, and saying “But Jesus says I’m supposed to forgive them and go back. As a church, we have emphasized the first part of this gospel at the wrong times; Jesus does not want us to continue to permit evil seventy seven times. And maybe we’ve emphasized the second part of the Gospel at the wrong times too. Too much punishment and torture when mercy is required.
But we talked and compared and shared our collective wisdom. Learning that sometimes the deepest wounds were from people who were not intending to hurt us; learning that forgiveness was not often for the perpetrator of the offense but for ourselves. We had compassion for the slave with the great debt—the threat made against him, of being thrown into prison with his family must have been terrifying, and many of us recognized that fear can lead us into deeper sin.
Probably the earliest and deepest place we begin to learn our theology of forgiveness is in the Lord’s Prayer. In our Lord’s Prayer translations, we are accustomed to saying “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s a very minimalizing way of talking about sin—a trespass, a crossing of a boundary, but one that could be recrossed without harm. And that’s not what the words in the Gospel when Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer mean. In Matthew, on the Sermon on the Mount—the same Gospel as today’s passage, the accurate translation of the Greek is “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In the gospel of Luke the best translation would be “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” has “hamartia,” sin, an old archery term for missing the mark.
It can be helpful to think of sins as debts—as things that we owe, and that accrue interest, the longer they are left unhealed, unresolved, unrepented for. And it can also be helpful to think of sins as missing the mark—we were aiming for the bullseye, but we sent our arrow wildly off target and have to go retrieve it and try again, and hope that our stray arrow didn’t strike someone or cause too much damage.
One of the most interesting experiences when I was in the Holy Land was when our group had tea with Shafika Dawani, the wife of the Anglican Archbishop. She is a Palestinian Christian whose family lived in Jaffa until 1948, when they were forced to move to Jerusalem; they lost everything again in 1967 because they were on the wrong side of the new borders.
She recounted being taken to a reconciliation center in Bethlehem by the wife of Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians were brought together for conversation. It was obviously a type of encounter that was new to her; and she said that the very kindly and well-intentioned Israeli moderator began by saying something along the lines of, “WE aren’t going to talk about or rehash the past. We are going to talk about the future we want to see.”
But she couldn’t do that. She can’t do that. She ended up in tears—both at the event and with us—and I was left with the strong conviction that if she was able to tell her story of loss and injustice and oppression at that event; and if she was able to hear the similar stories of loss and suffering from Israelis; then and only then might forgiveness and a future open up. At the tea I mentioned Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness, which recounts his experiences as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was a TRUTH and reconciliation commission; there had to be truth first before reconciliation. Shafika’s truth hasn’t yet been heard, and so the wound grows, and forgiveness is still unimaginable.
Archbishop Tutu’s perspective on forgiveness is also in our fall book, the Book of Joy. Chapter five is titled “Forgiveness: Freeing ourselves from the past.” Forgiveness is not forgetting, and forgiveness is not just permitting bad behavior/evil/abuse. Forgiveness is standing up and taking action to prevent evil acts; but resisting the impulse to attribute the evil as inherent to the actor. And that is as true in our individual lives as it is in a global or national context. Archbishop Tutu says elsewhere “No one is incapable of forgiving, and no one is unforgivable.”
A few moments from now, we will be renewing our baptismal covenant, and reminding ourselves of the vows made at our baptism: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?” and the answer: “I will, with God’s help.”
We are going to be in need of forgiveness. Following Jesus does not make us perfect. But sin is not the end of our stories. When we sin, repent and return. And there will be a merciful God. Peter, who begins this conversation with Jesus about forgiving as many as seven times, will need all that forgiveness when he denies Jesus three times and is then absent at the crucifixion. And yet he’s the rock of the church. At my core, at my rock, I know that God is forgiving me for my sins, and if God is doing that for me, how can I not be forgiving in return? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.