Monday, September 11, 2017

Unlimited Love Means Unlimited Forgiveness

Yesterday, I preached about forgiveness. Given their context in Matthew 18, I felt that Jesus' words to the "church" about confronting sinners and asking them to repent was a passage about enabling forgiveness. Part of that is based on the parable of the lost sheep, which comes right before those instructions. Another part is based on what comes after it, which is this Sunday's Gospel lesson, Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks Jesus how many times he is supposed to forgive a member of the church who has sinned against him--as many as seven times? And Jesus replies, "Not seven but seventy-seven."

Seven is a number of completeness, so, when Peter asks whether he should forgive seven times, what he's really asking is, "Must I forgive until forgiveness is complete?" And Jesus says, "Not until you think forgiveness is complete, but until perfect forgiveness has reached its perfect perfection." It's hyperbolic, for sure, but the point is clear. You can never stop forgiving. Never.

Because we are using Track 1, the Old Testament lesson about the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19-31) is not supposed to be paired with the Gospel lesson thematically, but I can't help but notice a sentence in the passage that catches me up short: "The Egyptians said, 'Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.'" In that moment, the Egyptian soldiers and chariot drivers seem to recognize that Yahweh, Israel's God, is actively fighting against them. They decide to flee, but they never get the chance. God tells Moses to stretch his hand out over the sea, and the water returns to its normal depth, and the "entire army of the Pharaoh" is drowned. We're told that "not one of them remained." And I find myself wondering, when is it time to let the Egyptians live? When is it time to forgive them?

Maybe it's because today is September 11. Maybe it's because anti-Islamic sentiments are still largely a socially acceptable form of racism. Maybe it's because I know that following Jesus' commandment to pray for our enemies and offer a prayer for an Islamic terrorist is threatening enough to make my job as a parish priest difficult. But I find the impulse to celebrate the terrible deaths of our enemies, which is recorded in many places in scripture, contrary to the message of unlimited forgiveness enshrined in the story of Jesus.

The alternate Track 1 Old Testament lesson, the singing and dancing of God's people that "horse and rider [the LORD] has thrown into the sea," is even worse. It's a blood-thirsty battle song about God's triumph over the enemies of God's people. It's one thing to celebrate God's victory. It's another thing to relish in their deaths. If God is the God of love, how do we make sense of this? Maybe it's true that the Egyptians never would have stopped their pursuit until God wiped them out. Or maybe there's a way to recapture this central victory of the Jewish faith without celebrating the deaths of so many human beings. That's the challenge for the person of faith on a day like 9-11. We support those who fight and die to keep us safe and free, but we cannot glory in the deaths of our enemies. We must find a way to do the impossible. We must find a way to forgive and love those who wish us harm. Otherwise, as Sunday's gospel lesson teaches us, we have no forgiveness for ourselves.

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