Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Taking Forgiveness For Granted

God's love is automatic. God does not weigh our lives in the balance and then decide whether we are worthy of God's love. God just loves us. It's not only what God does; it's also who God is. Sometimes, however, we become so accustomed to God's never-failing love that we begin to take it for granted, and, as we see in Sunday's gospel lesson from Matthew 18, the consequences are dire.

"How often should I forgive?" Peter asks Jesus. "As many as seven times?" Jesus replies, "Not seven but seventy-seven." As I wrote about on Monday, that's like Peter asking, "Must I really forgive completely?" and Jesus replying, "Not completely, but perfectly perfectly completely." God's love is infinite--truly limitless--and so is God's forgiveness. We may not be able to fathom the unfathomable magnitude of God and God's love, but we can be so overcome by it that it changes us from unforgiving to magnanimous. How does that work? Jesus explains it in his gruesome parable.

A slave owes his master 10,000 talents. (That's as ridiculous as saying that my four-year-old owes me a million dollars. A talent is a measure of a precious metal like gold or silver. Internet resources argue over whether a talent is 50kg or 30kg, but, whether gold or silver, whether 100 pounds or 50 pounds, 10,000 talents is a stupid-big amount of money. Jesus isn't trying to give a math lesson; he's trying to make a point.) The slave is confronted by his master, begs for patience, and receives forgiveness of the debt. (Again, that's ridiculous, but so is God's love.) As soon as the slave left his master's forgiving presence, he happened upon another slave, who owed him 100 denarii. That's the same amount of money that a laborer would receive for 100 days worth of work. In today's money, that might be $8,000 or so--not an insignificant amount but nothing that compares with 10,000 talents. When the first slave confronts the second about the debt, the latter falls on his knees and begs for patience, but the first slave will not hear of it. He threw him into jail, demanding full repayment. Naturally, when the master hears of it, he is furious, and he withdraws his offer of forgiving the debt and has the unforgiving slave tortured until he pays the whole 10,000 talents. (Again, that's an impossibility.)

For all of our sins, for all of our unfaithfulness, for all of our selfishness, for all of our abuse of the blessings that we have been given, God grants us unlimited forgiveness. We are pardoned. We are set free from the debt that our failure to use the life that we have been given to our Creator's glory has incurred. God's unlimited love means unlimited forgiveness. But how does that forgiveness change our lives? Do we offer that same limitless love to others? When we happen upon one who has wronged us or who owes us, do we share the forgiveness that we have received with that person, or do we take it for granted?

I think it's dangerous to take the parable as a full representation of how God works. I don't think God withdraws the offer to forgive us when we sinfully deny forgiveness to others. I don't think God will send us to the place of torture until we have paid the debt that our sin has incurred. And I don't think that there are tattle-tellers who report to God that we haven't been as faithful as we should. Instead, I think we are supposed to understand this parable as a portrayal of the magnitude of God's forgiveness and the incongruity of our typically unforgiving nature. It makes no sense that one who has been forgiven as fully as we have been forgiven would deny that forgiveness to someone else. But we do it all the time. Why? I think Jesus is trying to teach us that our unforgiving nature is a consequence of our failure to appreciate the magnitude of the forgiveness that we have been given.

The answer isn't for us to try harder to be forgiving. That doesn't work. Human effort, though impressive, is ultimately doomed to fail. The answer isn't for us to resolve to be more forgiving. The answer is for us to reconnect with the limitless nature of God's forgiveness. Say your prayers. Go to confession. Read the Bible. Read Dostoevsky. Go to church and say the confession and savor every word. Make reading the parable of the Prodigal Son part of your daily routine. Whatever it takes, remember that you are loved and forgiven without limit. Encounter what God has given you in a way that transforms your life. If you're finding it hard to forgive others, quit trying so hard. Let God's forgiveness of you (and them) become the pattern for your life.

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