I Don’t Know What Forgiveness Is: Matthew 18.15–22

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 10, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2019.3.10 metanoiaFORGIVENESS
As many of you know, I’m enrolled in a two-year program of spiritual formation called Prairie Fire. When it is over I will do a third year to become a certified spiritual director. In my small group a couple of months ago, our leader read a piece about forgiveness. My response was something like, “I don’t buy this. I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it.”

I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it. A contradiction, of course, because how can I refuse to buy something if I say I don’t know what it is. What I think I meant is that I do not know what forgiveness is but I do not buy what the church universal tends to sell as forgiveness: the justification for Jesus’s death on a cross.

ATONEMENT
What to do with Jesus’s death on the cross has been a problem since that death. How could someone infused with, or someone of divinity be killed? Why would God “allow” that? And what if God not only allowed it, but wanted it? What do our answers say about God and what do they say God thinks of us?

There have been many answers, and still are. The orthodox position, orthodox meaning “right belief,” has been that humanity is so horrid that God needed a blood sacrifice to atone for our horridness. God needed the death of one who was welcoming, loving, and gracious in order to forgive us for our failure to be all of those things.

Such theology makes humanity inherently deficient and God universally bloodthirsty. I reject both.

I know that we can be rotten, but not thoroughly depraved. And, as we read in Psalm 51 at both Ash Wednesday services last week, God has “no delight in sacrifice” (verse 16). God’s intervention at Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac affirms the Psalmist: God is over sacrificial atonement, if God even was into it in the first place. So the forgiveness that I do not buy is the one that most Christian churches claim to have exclusive control of through their interpretation of these old stories.

But speaking of old stories, in today’s passage it isn’t divine forgiveness of human deficiency through capital punishment that Jesus teaches.

JESUS
As with so many in Matthew, this is a private teaching just for the disciples. After many parables and the work needed to glimpse their many potential meanings, Jesus offers this straightforward lesson in community life:

If someone in your community harms you, go talk to them in private. If they apologize, you are all good. If not, go back to them with a witness or two. If that does not work, if you are still not heard, then tell the whole community. If still there is no admittance of injury and effort at reparation, your work is done.

But this recipe for returning to right relationship is not enough for Simon Peter. He asks Jesus, “If I am hurt, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” Nope, Jesus replies, “77 times.” Much has been made of these particular numbers, but let’s today simply hear it as an intensification. There is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one who harms us.
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