Monday, September 8, 2014

So Now You Tell Us!

Yesterday's gospel seemed to be about excommunication--what does it take to kick someone out of the church? This Sunday, the lesson picks up right where yesterday's left off, and we discover that what Jesus was really thinking about was forgiveness--how many times should we forgive?

Here's how I see the scene unfolding:

  • Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, stressing that the shepherd (God) will leave everything behind in search of the one lost member.
  • Jesus tells his disciples what to do if a member of their fellowship sins against them, prescribing a three-fold process of seeking reconciliation, ultimately ended in the excommunication of the unrepentant sinner.
  • Peter, surprised at what he hears, asks Jesus how many times forgiveness is appropriate?
  • Jesus, leaving no doubt, tells a parable about the consequence of our unwillingness to forgive.

Peter is startled at this puzzling direction from Jesus, but he's NOT startled in the way that I am. I want to stop Jesus and say, "Wait, you want us to kick someone out?" But Peter, who asks Jesus, "If another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive--as many as seven times?" heard Jesus' instruction not as a condemnation but as a surprising message of forgiveness.

Over and over, the cultural gap between now and then leaves me misinterpreting the gospel text. I think Jesus is being harsh, but Peter thinks he's being lenient. I think Jesus is interesting in kicking people out of the church, but Peter is shocked that he's willing to put up with unrepentant shenanigans for so long.

The shocking, amazing, foundation-shaking truth is this: forgiveness has no limits. How will that be real to us?

Here's a list of some ways that we miss the point of the gospel in everyday life:

  • Habitual offender laws or "three-strikes laws" that indiscriminately impose mandatory sentences (sometimes life sentences) for third felony convictions
  • Pete Rose's place on the permanently ineligible list of Major League Baseball
  • Capital punishment

Even Marge Schott, the blatant racist and Nazi supporter who owned the Cincinnati Reds, was reinstated two years after receiving a lifetime ban from baseball. Even the NFL's new domestic violence policy, which threatens a possible lifetime ban for a second offense, imagines that an individual can apply for reinstatement after the first year. Even those incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole have the opportunity to seek reconciliation with those they have hurt.

Jesus shows us that we must always leave room for repentance. It might not happen, and we might be forced to treat someone "as a Gentile and a tax collector," but we must always look for the possibility of reconciliation. How willing are we to forgive--not just as individuals but as a society?

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