Proper 19A: “Cut Each Other Some Slack”
Once there was a family business of homebuilders, consisting of a father and his two sons. One of the sons felt unappreciated and taken for granted by his father, and was resentful at what seemed like the father’s more favorable treatment of the other son. One day the father came up to the son and told him to take charge of building a new home on a piece of land. The son agreed to do it, but in his heart resolved to put in the minimal amount of effort in order to get back at the father. So he bought the cheapest and flimsiest materials possible that he could get away with, and instructed his workers to take many shortcuts and skip certain steps in order to rush the job. When the house was completed, the father came by to take a look. “Well done, Son – the house looks good. And to show you how much I appreciate your work and you as my son …” – the father put his hands in his front pocket and pulled out a set of house keys – “I’m giving you this brand new home!!” No doubt, the son felt hacked off with himself and chagrined at the generous impulse of his father.
Have you ever heard this warning: Be careful what you pray for – you might get it? Watch out – you just might get what you are after. Here’s a prayer many of us pray at least once a week – forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us. That small word “as” carries a lot of weight on its shoulders, and implies a significant obligation to extend God’s forgiveness to those who may have hurt us in some way.
Is that what we really want? We know we want the first part of the petition, God’s forgiveness. However, we are not so sure about the second part, about the way we forgive others. We know that we are not nearly so quick to forgive others as we hope and pray that God forgives us. The Psalmist says, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.” Great news. We mess up. We ask God for forgiveness. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, and so God forgives us. But… when someone does us wrong, when someone does us dirty, we say, “not so fast.” We are not so full of compassion and mercy. We are not so slow to anger and of great kindness. We may be quick to anger and full of… colorful language.
There is an expression in the English language that stems from the time of the great navies of the late 1700s – cutting each other some slack. It means that where a ship’s rope is too tight, we need to loosen it in order for the rope to fulfill its function and serve its purpose at that time. However, we confess that at times we find it hard to cut each other some slack.
And yet, this is how Our Lord taught us to pray – forgive us our trespasses, AS we forgive those who trespass against us. Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it.
In our Gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Peter always asks the questions that we would like to ask. He is so earnest and so eager to do the right thing. But Peter also always seems to be getting it wrong. Maybe it’s this fallible humanity that makes Peter an exemplar for us. He had heard Jesus talk about forgiveness, so he wants to know more.
And Peter must have done his homework, too. There is an ancient rabbinic tradition that says a person should forgive another who has sinned against him as many as four times. So, Peter, earnest and eager, tries to be even more extravagant than the rabbis, and he adds three more times. He asks, “Should I forgive a person even up to seven times?”
Seven times is a lot. It’s three more than the rabbis. It is a lot of times to turn and forgive someone who has sinned against you. Perhaps Peter was expecting Jesus to praise him for even suggesting such extravagant forgiveness. Perhaps Peter was hoping for a pat on the back, an “Atta Boy,” for an A+ on his forgiveness exam.
This doesn’t happen. Rather, Jesus turns and shockingly says, “No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” New Testament scholars debate whether the Greek text means “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” But that is beside the point, because either way, Jesus is holding up an enormous number, a number so big that we can’t begin to calculate it in terms of forgiveness.
Like so many of us, Peter wants a limit, a measurement, so he holds wide his hands and says, “This much, Lord? Should I forgive even this much?” And Jesus says, “No, much more than that. You’re not even using the right scale. As far as the east is from the west, that’s how much you should forgive.” It’s such an enormous amount of forgiveness, it would be senseless to try to calculate how much or how often.
You share something embarrassing about yourself to a friend who promises to keep the information confidential. However, the friend breaks his promise and proceeds to tell several people. What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive your friend? Or a family member humiliates you in front of others by sharing a story about you that you did not want anyone to know. What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive the family member?
How are we doing so far? What’s our limit?
In our first reading from Genesis 50, we hear about our old friend Joseph, of “the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” fame. A few weeks earlier we read how Joseph had been a kind of a brat, being the favorite of the 12 sons of Jacob, and often giving a bad report of the other brothers’ work in the fields. They decide to throw him into a deep dry desert cistern, later to kill him and to tell their father Jacob that a wild animal attacked Joseph, but before they could do a group of Midian slavetraders find Joseph, kidnap him, and sell him into slavery in Egypt. He then gets falsely accused of the crime of the attempted rape of his boss’ wife and thrown into jail for many years. Eventually the Pharaoh hears of Joseph’s ability to know people dreams and to interpret them, foretelling the future. Joseph rises up to become nothing less than the Prime Minister of Egypt, only second in power to the Pharaoh himself.
So when Joseph’s brothers travel down to Egypt from Canaan because their large family needed food to ride out the severe famine in the land, they have to come before the “Prime Minister,” not recognizing Joseph after 20 years and presuming he was dead. Now at this point Joseph has a choice – he could use his power to avenge himself for his brothers’ previous cruelty, or he could be magnanimous, forgive them, and help them in their hour of need. He chooses the latter, revealing himself to them and saying to them, “What you intended for harm, God intended for good, to be a blessing to you and to many others.” In short, Joseph decides to take a “God’s-Eye View” of the situation, be thankful to God for having lifted him up, and using his new position to be a blessing to others, even to those who had intended his demise.
Joseph becomes an admirable model of how to forgive those who either have harmed us or have intended to do so. This leads to a definition of forgiveness that may be helpful: Forgiveness is NOT sweeping something bad under the carpet nor pretending it didn’t happen, but it is taking a posture to not allow the original hurt to dictate the rest of our lives nor to frame our attitude. We may not feel like forgiving, but we can certainly take the decision of the will to forgive and thus to help us move on in our lives. While we will have the scars as reminders of past hurts, we don’t have to nurse the original stings of them.
Similarly in our second reading from Romans 14, Paul reminds his readers that “we all will stand before the judgment seat of God,” so “why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” Cut each other some slack.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells Peter the story about the unforgiving servant, a story where the numbers don’t add up. A biblical talent was equivalent to about 4 months’ daily wages of an average day laborer, so 10,000 talents equaled nothing less than 3,000 years of working! And yet this is how much the First Worker owes the King in Jesus’ story. An impossible amount no one could possibly pay back at all. So, like Joseph, the King has a choice – take vengeance and throw the First Worker in jail for the rest of his life, or forgive the First Worker and his insurmountable debt. Thankfully, the King is kind and does the latter.
Now if you were the First Worker, what would be your reaction? I would be jumping up and down for joy, ecstatic that I got my life back. I’d want to tell everyone and practice similar kindness to everyone I meet.
And yet, when the First Worker, who has just been forgiven a debt of a bazillion dollars, runs into a Second Worker who owes him a hundred denarii – which at about 4 months of an average worker’s wages is not nothing but is tiny in comparison to what he owed the king – what does he do? Well, he grabs the guy by the throat and demands that he pay up. And when the King finds out that the First Worker whom he had just forgiven an unimaginable amount wouldn’t forgive the pittance that was owed him by another, he had the First Worker thrown into prison.
The problem with the First Worker is that he has a short memory. He has a lack of true appreciation and deep-down gratitude for all that had been forgiven. Maybe this is where many of us come up short – we’re used to being religious people who have heard the story of God’s forgiveness so much, we forget how God has blessed us in our lives – no matter who we are, where we’ve been, or what we’ve done – and so we fail to extend God’s over-the-top forgiveness to others. In short, we don’t cut others the same slack God has cut us.
Now we do serve a God who is entirely forgetful in one area only – God forgives and forgets those things we regret and rue, the things we are embarrassed about, the things we don’t want others to know and choose to bury in the past. God also does this for us each and every day going forward – when we wake up we have a new slate and can choose to live for God’s glory and to be a blessing to those around us.
We forgive, then, because God forgives. The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ. Not because we are moral heroes or because we seek our own wellbeing, but because we are forgiven sinners.
Forgiveness may very well be a character strength and virtue. It probably does contribute to leading good and happy lives. But, Jesus reminds us, when it comes to our ability and need to forgive, we are, all of us, those of us who have great character strengths and those of us who do not, penitents, debtors kneeling at the foot of the cross.
“Forgive us our trespasses, AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” One comes with the other.
Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it.