Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Forget to Forgive

Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Matthew 18:32-35

Jesus. What gives?

This is the kind of passage that makes me want to hide my bible. God forbid Dick Cheney find it and see a scriptural justification for water boarding.

“And in anger his Lord handed him over to be tortured …”
I’m searching the passage for loopholes (as W.C. Fields reportedly did when he studied the bible on his death bed). 

It seems an abuse of power for a king to send a flunky to the rack. 

At least it seems that way by our enlightened standards, which require turning a blind eye toward Abu Ghraib as if it were some kind of anachronistic aberration. 

But kings are only human and we accept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The unnerving part of Jesus’ intervention is that the reference to torture no sooner leaves his lips than he ups the ante: 

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Pause for nervous laughter.

God will hand us over to be tortured if we nurse a grudge?

That’s messed up. I still haven’t forgiven George W. Bush for starting unnecessary wars, and I seethe with undiluted anger at Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, who I regard as war criminals.  

But I suppose Jesus wasn’t talking about political animosities because he nursed his share of them. When it came to scribes and Pharisees, he probably abhorred the sin while forgiving the sinner. Perhaps I could achieve a similar rapprochement with Henry Kissinger.

But I don’t think God cares whether I forgive Henry Kissinger, who I’ve never met. Unfortunately, I think God is more concerned about my attitude toward my actual neighbor – that is, the guy next door – who curses at my barking dog, or the idiot who snatches all the donuts at the coffee table, or the mad max who cuts me off at rush hour on the parkway. To each I would hurl a Carnac curse from the old Tonight Show: may a bag of pop rocks explode in your shorts. 

Admittedly, that is not the kind of forgiving attitude that would convince God to send the torturer away. 

We all struggle with this, and to further darken our prospects, these annoying folks are easier to forgive than the people we actually live with or cannot escape.

In this category fall rancorous ex-spouses, misanthropic bosses, languid adult children still living at home, hypercritical in-laws who think you aren’t good enough for the family, and obsequious relatives who listen to them.

In each of these cases, you might find it possible to forgive these tormenters once or twice. But they keep coming back at you with new infamies and new miseries. Dear God, how much can we take? Wouldn’t Jesus be an empathetic listener?
You: “Jesus, she drives me crazy!” 
Jesus: “I know, right?”
That conversation will never happen. Jesus already had that conversation and it went like this:
Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 
Jesus: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22.
Actually, Jesus was condescending to Peter’s literal mind. He wasn’t suggesting we use hash marks to keep track of the number of times we forgive. A redacted version of the conversation would have the same meaning.
Peter: “Shall I ever stop forgiving someone who sins against me?” 
Jesus: “No.”
This is certainly one of those utterances of Jesus that we would prefer to ignore. A lot of families have members who haven’t spoken to each other for years because of some terrible and unforgivable thing that happened. Sometimes this happens between siblings. My grandfather and his brother hated each other and I never knew why. Those who knew didn’t talk about it or had forgotten what happened. My uncle did show up at Grandpa’s funeral because my aunt insisted on it. But he couldn’t stop smiling.

Too bad for Grandpa and Uncle. They couldn’t forgive each other once, let alone 77 times. That did not portend well for their spiritual consolation when they finally met their maker.

In many bible stories, antagonism between siblings was common. (Back then there weren’t so many examples of litigious ex-spouses, but that’s another issue.)

It’s no coincidence that the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday includes the climax of another simmering sibling rivalry: the one that existed for decades between Joseph and his brothers. Genesis 50:15-21.

As the oldest of five siblings, I have a simple exegesis of the brotherly enmity that existed for so long: Joseph was a twit.

He was the youngest of his brothers and his father, Jacob, adored him. Joseph was somehow conceived long after Jacob had accepted erectile dysfunction as a badge of maturity, along with cataracts and unplanned flatulence. Joseph was obviously a miracle baby, and Jacob, his jaw unhinged and spittle dripping on his apron, stared at the child for hours.

That alone would have annoyed the older brothers, but Joseph made it worse. Either out of insolence or innocence, Joseph boasted of dreams that showed he ranked far above his seniors.

What a schlemiel. As an older brother, I wouldn’t necessarily approve of selling the brat into slavery. But – to quote Chris Rock – I can certainly understand it.

As it turned out, the brothers plotted to kill Joseph but, out of mercy or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. In a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, the brothers killed a goat and smeared the blood of Joseph’s coat so Jacob would think the boy was dead. 

The story has been told in many forms for millennia. One of my favorite versions is the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, with Clay Aiken in the title role.

The decades that followed this monumental act of sibling betrayal nursed festering resentments that would defy any possibility of reconciliation. When Jacob’s sons are forced to travel to Egypt to seek relief from a famine, they discover to their horror that little Joseph is now the king’s first minister. Not good news. The revelation was tantamount to a death sentence.

But, thousands of years before Jesus ordered aggrieved people to forgive seventy-seven times, God’s grace was powerfully manifest.

So the brothers approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Genesis 50:16-21.
Joseph’s forgiving response to his brothers was unexpected. If he had reacted, shall we say, normally, he would have incited a bloody fratricide like the Red Wedding scene in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

In fact, that might have been an easier reaction for Joseph than blithely dismissing all those years of treachery and pain.

But what would have been the point of vengeance? Who would have benefitted? And how would God have been served?

The dark landscape in which we live is satiated with deceit and betrayal, reprisal and recrimination. There may be some small satisfaction in striking back, but in the end retaliation begets more scores to be settled, more pain, more alienation from God’s eternal love.

Your task, Jesus said – as exhausting as it may be – is to forgive and forgive as often as you are hurt.

The only way out of the obscene cycle of resentment and despair is to forgive the ones who hurt you most. 

Seventy seven times.

And thats only the beginning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Shun and Sham

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:15-20

Love your neighbor.


But what if your neighbor is a jerk?

And who gets to define what a jerk is?

Jesus was clear that a jerk is someone who sins against you. But if further clarification was needed, he told the sinned-against to have a heart-to-heart with the alleged sinner. If that didn’t resolve it, call in witnesses. If all else fails, Jesus said, take it to the congregation.


That seems like a nice churchy approach. But, Jesus, it never works. Not among us self-righteous, disapproving, narcissistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, or homophobic sinners. (I think that includes most of us.) It only makes a bigger mess.

Most of the churches I have attended were well-meaning simulations of the beloved community. Not perfect, but they tried. There were minor schisms over the blend of coffee or the selection of hymns or the pastor’s polysyllabic obscurities in sermons. But for the most part they got along like extended families. No better, but no worse.

Congregations can get along for years until some headstrong adelphos (Greek for “brother,” translated “member of the church” in Matthew 18) figures he has a serious bone to pick. Sometimes the trigger is a loud disagreement in adult class over the nature of substitutionary atonement. More likely it’s an overheard whisper that a baby in church is ugly, noisy, and smells like poop. 

These disputes are best handled in private. Things can get nasty if one offended sinner calls in witnesses to gang up on another. As is well known, most parents believe anyone who criticizes their screechy, ugly, stinking baby has either blasphemed against the Holy Spirit or joined a Wicca coven. 

If such accusations are allowed to escalate, rumors will circulate in the congregation that the offender is dangerously unchristian, apostate, mentally unbalanced, and unfit to take up pew space. In the final confrontation, the offender will be shown the door amid dubious assurances that “we love you and will be praying for you.” 

This is an extreme form of shunning, and fortunately not the most common. Many sinners avoid unpleasant confrontations by never joining the congregation in the first place. 

Many congregations would consider themselves sinned against by crying babies, same-sex couples, transsexuals, homeless persons, or persons in the wrong racial, language, or economic demographic. These membership limits are unwritten for the most part, but it doesn’t require divine discernment to know who is welcome and who isn’t.

It may be that Jesus’ guidelines for confronting persons who sin against us need to be reinterpreted in the light of his uncompromising commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love your enemy.

There are no loopholes in these commandments that would permit us to ban anyone from our congregations.

Most churches have figured this out even if they have been unable to carry it out. And of course many churches throw open their doors to everyone.

The United Church of Christ – a historic amalgamation of Reformed, evangelical, and Congregational roots– is especially clever in extending their unconditional invitation. The church has created television ads to make the point that their congregations shun no one. 

One of my favorites shows a congregation in which various undesirables are unceremoniously snatched from their pews: a mother with a crying baby, a same-sex couple, a Middle Eastern looking man. A voiceover declares, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we. The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on God’s journey, you’re welcome here.” 

Granted, there may be some on God’s journey with whom you would not wish to sit shoulder to shoulder in church. Perhaps not the Joker. Perhaps not Jeffrey Dahmer. Perhaps not Osama bin Laden.

But Jesus has not suggested that we are free to shun and reject even the most contemptible of sinners. Judging them is up to God. The role God has assigned to us, as appalling as it seems, is to love them. 

That’s why Christianity is no Sunday school picnic.

Jesus’ guidelines for dealing with church members who sin against us may well be applied to homicidal maniacs, murderous deviants, and megalomaniacal terrorists. We should love them, perhaps, but we are also permitted to keep them at a safe distance.

For other members of the congregation – the mothers with crying babies, the redolent homeless, the visibly other – Jesus’ guidelines should be followed with the utmost caution and compassion.

And always in the context of God’s unconditional love.