I don’t know about you, but the last couple verses of the passage from Matthew stick in my brain like a burr inside a sock. It’s hard to ignore and it’s never going to feel o.k.
Jesus is talking about the value and need for forgiveness and tells this story about forgiving debts and someone being thrown into jail and tortured until he can pay his debt in full. Then verse 35 adds, “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Yup, that really makes you want to forgive doesn’t it?
Let’s deal with that burr in the sock. It’s an add-on. Of all the gospel writer’s Matthew seemed to like to add on a bit of eternal torment and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know why. But I don’t think it’s what Jesus said, as fond as he was of hyperbole to make a point.
I don’t find it convincing or in synch with how Jesus tried to embody God. And… I’ll get back to it.
The reality is that forgiveness is difficult – regardless of the motivation. “The path of forgiveness can seem as unattainable as the path through the sea. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? This group of escaped slaves standing at the water’s edge, with the dust from Pharaoh’s chariots rising in the distance? Can you feel the gut-churning dilemma? `If I stay here, I’m going to be slaughtered. If I go forward, I’m going to drown.’ Can they trust that God will get them through this deep water to the path of freedom? Can we trust that God will guide us to freedom through the path of forgiveness?
If we feel that someone has wronged us, our resentment and pain can bog us down every bit as much as the chariot wheels of the Egyptian army. If we feel that we have wronged another, our guilt and shame can bog us down, until we fear it will drown us.
A number of years ago, I watched the movie, ‘The Kite Runner.’ The promo for the movies reads, “As young boys, Amir and Hassan were inseparable friends, until one fateful act tore them apart. Years later, Amir will embark on a dangerous quest to right the wrongs of the past – and redeem himself in ways he never expected…” It is a story of stepping into the sea of death, and finding the waters do part after all. As Amir’s mentor tells him, “There is a way to be good again.”
In Matthew’s gospel Peter asks the question, ‘How often do I have to forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? It’s not clear if Peter thinks this is a generous stretch, or if he’s hoping Jesus will say, `Three strikes – you’re out.’ – or off the hook in terms of forgiveness. Alas, Jesus says that you need to forgive 70 X 7 and then goes on to tell a parable about a man who is forgiven a huge debt, but doesn’t have the sense or grace to forgive in turn.
Then we get to that add-on which I mentioned at the beginning where the moral of the story seems to be you need to forgive completely and with heart-felt sincerity or God will torture you. It doesn’t work – if your heart is wounded, the last thing that will fix it is the threat of punishment. Judgement doesn’t heal, only love heals.
In the book `The Secret Life of Bees’, Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of a 14 year old girl named Lily, growing up in South Carolina in the 1960’s. It’s well worth reading. At some point Lily speaks of her mother. “I guess I have forgiven both of us, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.”
When I first read that, I stopped, opened up my journal and wrote: “Suddenly it strikes me, after reading this passage (in Matthew)
All my life – I hear Jesus words about forgiveness in a new way. When he says you have to forgive 70×7, maybe it’s not that you have to forgive 490 sins from the same person, but that some acts of commission or omission are so huge or so deep, you have to take little bites at forgiving – like eating an elephant one spoonful at a time.”
Richard Rohr, A Franciscan priest offers a prayer to help us step into those waters of forgiveness. I invite you to close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths…, let your body be supported by the chair you sit in, …and be as open to this prayer as you are able. Here is Richard’s gift of prayer:
I’d like to offer you a form of contemplation—a practice of forgiving reality for being what it is—called The Welcoming Prayer.
First, identify a hurt or an offense in your life. Remember the feelings you first experienced with this hurt and feel them the way you first felt them. Notice how this shows up in your body. Paying attention to your body’s sensations keeps you from jumping into the mind and its dualistic games of good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.
After you can identify the hurt and feel it in your body, welcome it. Stop fighting it. Stop splitting and blaming. Welcome the grief. Welcome the anger. It’s hard to do, but for some reason, when we name it, feel it, and welcome it, transformation can begin.
Don’t lose presence to the moment. Any kind of analysis will lead you back into attachment to your ego self. The reason a bird sitting on a hot wire is not electrocuted is quite simply because it does not touch the ground to give the electricity a pathway. Hold the creative tension, but don’t ground it by thinking about it, critiquing it, or analyzing it.
When you’re able to welcome your own pain, you will in some way feel the pain of the whole world. This is what it means to be human—and also what it means to be divine. You can hold this immense pain because you too are being held by the very One who went through this process on the cross. Jesus was holding all the pain of the world; though the world had come to hate him, he refused to hate it back.
Now hand all of this pain—yours and the world’s—over to God. Let it go. Ask for the grace of forgiveness for the person who hurt you, for the event that offended you, for the reality of suffering in each life.
I can’t promise the pain will leave easily or quickly. To forgive is not to forget. But letting go frees up a great amount of soul-energy that liberates a level of life you didn’t know existed. It leads you to your True Self.”
We can destroy ourselves and others if we cannot inch our way toward forgiveness. Hanging on relentlessly to the wrongs done to us or by us, can cause such turmoil that it keeps us from living our lives, with purpose and gratitude. The reality is that it takes time heal and restore – sometimes, lots of time. We don’t’ have to rush right out and try to forgive someone for fear that God will torture us if we don’t. That would be absurd. Yet, despite the fear and trembling we can step into the waters of forgiveness and find a path to freedom.
Invitation – here through the Sea is the path to freedom, to new life. (I had, during the `word for all ages’ set up two large pieces of blue fabric on the floor, and divided them to symbolize the Sea parting to let the Hebrews cross safely to dry land; the new land of freedom.
I then invited the congregational members to walk between the two lengths of blue cloth – the `divided sea’ – this path that God has made for you in love – in to a new land. Free from carrying the pain of betrayal, or guilt, or whatever other baggage you are carrying… I took off my shoes and led the way. Most of the congregation followed through the `sea’. I then brought the `waters’ together, drowning the old baggage we wanted to leave behind. It was a powerful spiritual experience!