Oct 18 = Unforgiven? (Matt 18:21-35)
Theme = Forgiveness, mercy, grace, love
This text is both powerful and troubling. It is powerful because it illustrates who we are as the people of God. We are called to reflect the nature and glory of God/Jesus. God is relational and so are we. Jesus offers forgiveness and so must we. God goes to those who hurt the relationship and so should we. Jesus initiates, maintains, and loves in relationship and so can we. This is the powerful message that we not only proclaim but are called to live and practice. Jesus is God in relationship.
However the parable is also troubling in that it illustrates a side of God that we struggle to embrace. First, the final statement of Jesus can haunt us, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother/sister from your heart.” (Matt 18:35) This is more pointed than an earlier statement, “If you do not forgive men/women their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (6:15)
In the ancient world there were shops or street booths that contained various instruments of torture. One ancient writer described that a slave owner could pick out one if he wished to punish/torture a slave and made an example of him or her. His description of tools was awful and one can imagine the horrible treatment of a disobedient slave by a cruel master. Even more the fear elicited by the screams sent a strong message to other slaves. The thought of a slave owner treating another human being this way strikes fear in our hearts. Yet, this is the language of Jesus. “My Father will hand you over to the torturers until you pay back what you owe—if you do not forgive others as you have been forgiven.” To believe that the God of mercy and love would be compared to this type of slave owner is troubling. However the point seems clear—we are expected to show mercy since we received mercy. The same author of mercy for us can take it away if we refuse to reciprocate.
We also see this “side” of Yahweh in the prophets. God “handed over” the Israelites to the Assyrians and Babylonians to be killed, the city sacked, and survivors transported to the cultural capitols of these nations. Habakkuk the prophet even cried out to God over this injustice, “How long Yahweh must I call for help, and you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” God has handed over the unfaithful and been willing to ignore the cries for help and in Jesus’ parable, will do the same for those who refuse to show mercy.
Second, the passage is troubling as it has been misused for so many years. In our work with abuse, healing, aiding victims and survivors, and confronting offenders we have been told that in the end victims have been bullied into forgiving their offender because they don’t want to anger their God. This happens only because faith communities tell victims that they have to forgive, as opposed to confronting offenders. In this thinking, the God who hands the unmerciful servant to the torturers becomes the same God who punishes the victims because they do not forgive their abuser and oppressor. Those who are victims are expected to forgive those abusers who are “verbally repentant” and beg to be taken home, rather than doing the difficult work of repentance and changing their behavior. Rather than the story applying to the sex abuser who ignores the cries of the spouse, child, or partner who beg for mercy and receive none at their hands, the offenders become the victims. By this belief, God has been “angry” with the wrong person.
Finally, the text is troubling when it is interpreted to suggest that we allow people to habitually hurt us in relationship. It seems that the offended party has to “continuously” speak to our offender and must forgive when asked, almost as it is a formula or “get out of jail card.” In addition to this rarely are others willing to join the victim and stand with them. It seems that the church stands to protect offenders by placing “gag orders” on those who not only are injured, but who feel that repentance has not happened. When a leader is asked for help they quickly dismiss the victim by telling them it is their problem and their issue to address first. Instead of resolving an issue those who hold power over “little ones” play the role of victim and dismiss the accusations against them, and if the true victim is bold enough to confront them, they quickly take control of the situation. “You get over it…” “I’m the victim here…” or “Actually you did the wrong to me first…” are ways that the offender becomes the defender. Those who feel intimidated avoid conflict and refuse to confront others while the “second witnesses” and the church abdicate the responsibility to help restore relationships.
As I mentioned earlier the passage is powerful and problematic. The problematic interpretation has overpowered the parable and story so that we cannot be reflections of God’s love, power, and holiness. Because we have focused on the angry, torturing God we feel forced to forgive and therefore force ourselves to resentfully, try to be “like God,” which ends in frustration. We are “not very good Christians” because we struggle to forgive, wrestle with anger, and hold grudges. Because we understand this passage to expect constant forgiveness we give up claiming that Christianity is a movement of either weak people who are doormats, enablers, and victims. We, like the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche claim that Christianity’s aid to the poor and vulnerable makes Christians inferior.
Because we understand God to expect us to confront the bully alone we wrestle with resentment, pain, mercy, and our own healing because we struggle alone. Churches believe we are all “ok” because we fail to do the difficult task of reconciliation rather than expect a “cease fire.” In all of this our view of God is drastically affected. God is a bully, defender of the bully, and irrational. We are forced to choose between a life of passivity and a life that uses the system—we ourselves become the offender. Since the weak and vulnerable have little justice it is our role to be the one who “offends” and then waits for someone to come to us.
We have already determined that this is the easy way. Speak first, and wait until someone tells us differently. We place it on the shoulders of others and let them “deal with it.” We, in the end, develop a philosophy that if “people mean well” we can’t judge them. No longer do we hold people accountable for their actions or their fruit, we assume that they had the best intentions. This, in our language, is to forgive and show mercy.
However, healing still doesn’t take place. We have failed to see that mercy and forgiveness heal relationships rather than acts as a vehicle to oppress others. We forget that there are those who suffer as well.
With October being Domestic Violence Awareness month the obvious discussion concerning forgiveness, repentance of offenders, and healing are important. Women in abuse continue to be pressed by faith communities to forgive their oppressor, return home to the marriage, and become vulnerable to a husband who may or may not have changed their ways. The fear of being “unforgiven” is as strong as the fear of being “unforgiving.”
The song The Unforgiven by Metallica is also a song about guitarist James Hatfield’s life growing up in a conservative Christian home, witnessing the death of his mother and being abandoned by his father, and his questions concerning God and the Christian life.
New blood joins this earth, and quickly he’s subdued. Through constant pained disgrace. The young boy learns their rules. With time the child draws in. This whipping boy done wrong. Deprived of all his thoughts. The young man struggles on and on he’s known. A vow unto his own, that never from this day his will they’ll take away.
What I’ve felt, what I’ve known, never shined through in what I’ve shown. Never be. Never see. Won’t see what might have been. What I’ve felt, what I’ve known Never shined through in what I’ve shown. Never free. Never me. So I dub thee unforgiven.
They dedicate their lives to running all of his. He tries to please them all – this bitter man he is. Throughout his life the same – He’s battled constantly. This fight he cannot win – a tired man they see no longer cares. The old man then prepares to die regretfully – that old man here is me.
What I’ve felt, what I’ve known Never shined through in what I’ve shown. Never be. Never see. Won’t see what might have been. What I’ve felt, what I’ve known Never shined through in what I’ve shown. Never free. Never me. So I dub thee unforgiven.
The parable of the unmerciful servant is placed in a certain context. First, Jesus had been discussing the idea of seeking the wandering/lost person and forgiving a brother who sinned against the disciple. The disciple was to first confront them for their sin, then, if that did not work, they were to take a second witness. If they “refused to listen” then they were to take the matter/problem to the church and cut them loose (consider them a sinner/outsider/ left the church). The disciple has the ability to release (a form of forgiveness or letting the matter go) the person and cut them loose if they do not repent.
In this section the famous quote “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am among them…” (Matt 18:20) occurs as a conclusion to Jesus’ command. This has typically been understood to mean that a worshipping church can exist with two or more people. It has been used to justify not gathering with a community or worshipping with a church. However, the context doesn’t offer support to this interpretation. It is a statement about authority, responsibility, and church discipline. Jesus told the disciples that they had the power and authority to exclude people who would not repent of their sins against others. Notice, this is not referring to a doctrinal issue as much as it is someone sinning against another person. This is more than, “you looked at me funny,” or “you said something in passing that bothered me…” This is a willful act of offending and hurting another person of the faith. The individual has become so flagrant in their behavior that they do not listen to reason from another person of faith, a community of faith, and the painful exclusion from a community. This act is a serious exclusion, and one that must not be taken lightly. Jesus’ claim is that the disciples have the authority and ability to affect one’s salvation. It is a choice that demands courage and faith—because Jesus is among them and they are not to be afraid.
As ministers Lori and I have experienced this. As church planters we have had to practice it. In the past I served with elders who, along with our wives, prayed for people and had to confront behavior that violates who we are as a Christian community. At Agape, most of it has fallen on us alone. As many of you know we have had to address sexual affairs with married Christians, inappropriate behavior with some of our own males toward other females, and violations of child safety in the home. These have been tough stands and ones that I know many Christian leaders would avoid. One of our own took his life after we found out he was a registered sex offender who did not disclose to us, had to support his wife and step children in confronting his abuse of their sister, and were accused of being supportive of “divorce for any reason.” After leaving he later ended his own life. There is not a time that, in thinking about it, I don’t feel a sense of guilt, remorse, and sadness. I hated to think that he was so alone he would not repent and make things right for his family. I hate to think what we did sent him to that point. However, the text here tells us that Jesus supports Christian leaders who stand up for the rights of those who are violated. We have done things like this for many years and know that Jesus has been with us, and that victims respect and honor what Agape is all about. Sometimes we have had to apologize for being unloving, judgmental, and speaking without a heart of mercy and love. It is hard, but we know that in the end Jesus told the church that they have the power to deal with oppression of others.
In addition to this we have heard the sad stories of those who were “excommunicated,” “refused communion,” or even “shunned by their church and families.” Women who were divorced by their husbands, single moms, and abuse victims share stories of being denied communion because they were “unclean,” even though they were victims. Children of these women share with me that they have a distaste for the church, ministers/priests, and God. These individuals express how they are angry with God, churches, and their future salvation. Truly, these decisions affect a person’s salvation and view of God. While there are those who avoid church because they know they will have to change their lives, in the end when they “hit rock bottom,” many return to church. However, those who were unjustly excluded when they “hit rock bottom,” do not return. Spiritual discipline can be used to bring honor to Jesus, but it can also be used to shame the Savior. Jesus is there and all of this must be taken seriously and with the mercy and love that is practiced by God.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant the disciple is reminded that they too are shown mercy by God. God has forgiven us our sin, disobedience, and failings that hurt God. While all are indebted to God, we are forgiven and not held accountable for them before our Lord. In the story the servant begged for forgiveness and received it. However, the servant would not use the same love, mercy, and compassion that God used as he would not forgive one who owed him. The second debtor even begged for mercy, but the servant chose to act the opposite way God acted. He even abused his inferior.
Often people enjoy punishing those who need compassion. The story is a horrible story concerning an individual who ignored the pleas for compassion that God heard from them, and found satisfaction in punishing their debtor. In the end, God did the same to the servant. He was treated as he treated his inferior. He too was tortured and punished as the story ended “That is how my heavenly father will treat each of you…”
The story is a reminder that we must be people of mercy, empathy, and compassion. How we treat others, is a reflection of our walk with God. We many times fail to see the suffering of others and are blinded by our hurt, hatred, and struggles. God is clear, if we expect mercy we should also be merciful. As leaders we must also be driven by mercy. Mercy causes us to go repeatedly to the offender and encourage them to stop their behavior toward others. Love causes us to be physically and emotionally present in an offender’s life so that we can call them to transformation. It also causes us to become vulnerable as we are open to hurt, violated trust, and rejection. However, if we become a people motivated by mercy and love, we will be able to help those who want guidance return to the kingdom and confront those who would rather live in evil instead of the light.
Yet, we must also proclaim that those who withhold mercy from those who plea for it, will suffer for their sin. We have a God who is not blind to injustice, abuse, oppression, and evil. We have a savior who will give back to those who harm others. Those who turn their ears to the pleas of victims, the oppressed who ask for protection and justice, and the little ones who beg to be treated with love and respect will themselves receive the same suffering at the hand of God. They will be handed over to the system until they learn mercy.
One point is important as we continue in domestic violence awareness month. Offenders who seek rehabilitation, mercy, and healing must repent. There is a difference between a slave who begs for mercy and an abusive or controlling personality who demands it. There is a difference between the person who says, “pay me what you owe me,” and “I just want you to acknowledge that you hurt me…” This story is not a parable that forces people to forgive, it is a story about confronting someone who has wronged us followed by one that encourages us to be people of mercy and compassion, when the individual is repentant.
In addition to this, the parable calls us to all be willing to practice mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Labeling someone “unforgiven” can not only keep them distanced from the community of faith, it can drive us away as well. The bottle up our anger, rage, and desire to punish will destroy us as well. To be a people who choose not to forgive places us in an emotional and spiritual prison that views God from pain and injustice.
A court is in session, a verdict is in No appeal on the docket today Just my own sin. The walls are cold and pale the cage made of steel Screams fill the room alone I drop and kneel. Silence now the sound my breath the only motion around Demons cluttering around, my face showing no emotion Shackled by my sentence expecting no return. Here there is no penance my skin begins to burn
(And I said oh) So I held my head up high hiding hate that burns inside, which only fuels their selfish pride (And I said oh) w e’re held captive out from the sun a sun that shines on only some, we the meek are all in one.
I hear a thunder in the distance wee a vision of a cross I feel the pain that was given on that sad day of loss a lion roars in the darkness only he holds the key A light to free me from my burden and grant me life eternally.
Should have been dead On a Sunday morning banging my head No time for mourning, ain’t got no time
I cry out to God Seeking only his decision Gabriel stands and confirms I’ve created my own prison. I cry out to God Seeking only his decision Gabriel stands and confirms I’ve created my own prison.
Creed, My Own Prison
On October 20, 2015 6 year old Anna and 10 year old Abigail were outside their home in Forest Grove playing in a pile of leaves. Like most kids they were having fun and feeling safe in their own yard. At 7pm Tom and Susan Dieter-Robinson’s lives were changed forever. Cynthia Garcia-Cisneos was driver her car, lost control, and ran over the pile of leaves in their front yard. Unaware that the girls were in the pile she drove off, assuming nothing had happened. Anna died on the scene and Abby died the next day. The community suffered this loss as Tom and Susan began the painful road to recovery. To lose two step-daughters in one day was devastating. The driver was arrested and sentenced, even though she had not intentionally meant to harm the girls. As Garcia-Cisneos later wept in court and apologized to Susan and Tom, Susan shocked our community in what she said, “I forgive you.”
News reporters were left speechless. Dieter-Robinson then did what was even more astounding. She began “Love Rocks” a Facebook page that encourages people to leave painted rocks with positive and loving words on them, throughout the country. Rocks have been left throughout the world, stories have been shared on her Facebook, people continue to follow Tom and Susan in their journey to healing, and rocks were even left at Reynolds High School—after the school shooting and loss of two students’ lives. Through Susan’s act of forgiveness thousands have been touched, and thousands more will be given support and love.
We can list many other stories including the Charleston, SC Christian Church that offered forgiveness to the young white male who was invited to a church and murdered at gunpoint African American men and women. Stories like this offer hope that forgiveness, mercy, and compassion can not only change those who have wronged others and who want to repent, but ourselves as well.
This is true forgiveness. This is mercy. When an individual hears how her actions have brought pain into the lives of a young couple, family, and friends she apologizes, grieves, and asks for mercy. To offer hope and forgiveness not only helps all to heal, it reflects the nature of Jesus.
- Think about some of the ways God has forgiven you and offered you mercy?
- In what ways has God cancelled your debts?
- Why is it a struggle for us to forgive those who hurt us?
- How can we as disciples offer mercy and compassion in our community, jobs, and walk with Jesus?
- What are some ideas that we might share with others in the group that help them to forgive again when someone repents and seeks to change?
- How does this parable help you in your spiritual growth and discipleship?