Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
St. Philip Lutheran Church
13 September 2020 + Lectionary 24A
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
A life of restless political ambition pushes Alexander Hamilton to the point of self-absorption. An affair drives a deep political scandal among the public and a wedge between him and his wife. And now his son, Philip, has died tragically and unexpectedly in a duel at the age of 19.
Estranged from his wife and grieving an unimaginable loss, Alexander hits bottom. There’s no writing his way out this time. In one of the most emotional songs in the whole musical, he pleads with Eliza to just let him stay by her side: “That would be enough.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she takes his hand, as the chorus sings, “Forgiveness -- can you imagine?”
As one fellow theatre-goer observes, “Watching Hamilton break into tears as Eliza finally returns his line of ‘it’s quiet uptown’ doesn’t make any sense. Forgiveness often doesn’t. It goes against every instinct we have.” She has every reason not to forgive him, and yet, irrationally, she does - as she’s able to tap into a place of not resentment but love.
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
It’s perhaps difficult to imagine such forgiveness in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant - a parable that ends with a tone of warning and judgment. But, as with most things when it comes to scripture, context is key.
One biblical scholar (Robert Farrar Capon) pulls our attention back several verses in chapter 18, beginning with the parable of the lost sheep - and the shepherd who leaves her 99 sheep to go after the one who is lost to bring them back into fold.
Then there’s Jesus’s conflict resolution advice we heard last week. If someone sins against you, make every attempt to reconcile, and if you still can’t reconcile, treat them like a Gentile or tax collector - in other words, do what Jesus does...eat with them, keep talking, and intentionally seek them out to draw them back into community.
“Okay,” says Peter, “so we should give people a bunch of chances then, right? Like seven? That’s gotta be enough.” Try seventy-seven, or seventy-times-seven, depending on your Greek translation. The point being not so much the specific number but the abundance of forgiveness.
Throughout this chapter, Jesus paints a picture of what God’s forgiveness looks like - abundant and unlimited and freely given, without qualification or pre-requisite, a love and forgiveness that actively seeks out the lost and the rejected and the despairing.
In the parable that follows, there is no reason to expect any semblance of forgiveness. The king is a bookkeeper, and this is a story of debt collection, a simple, cut-and-dry business transaction. When his slave is faced with crushing debt that he could never possibly repay, he does the first thing he can think of: He pleads for more time to pay. It’s the only option he thinks is possible. Yet the response he is met with is not a loan deferral period, but a total wiping out of his debt.
That’s an astonishing thing. There is no reason given for the king’s sudden act of forgiveness, only the implication that he has seemingly abandoned his framework of bookkeeping and accounting entirely. He doesn’t care about being repaid anymore … but his now-forgiven slave doesn’t seem to get it.
He thought he got what he asked for - more time - but what he got was radical, abundant, irrational grace.
Yet he’s so trapped in an economic system of debt service that he can’t imagine any other way, even when it’s right in front of him. Which helps explain his actions that follow. Problematic as it is, I don’t actually think he’s a cruel miser who refuses to extend the same mercy as was extended to him. But he’s trapped in a system that he just can’t die to.
Forgiveness without sin is meaningless and irrelevant. Sin without forgiveness is devastating and destructive. It perpetuates oppressive and harmful systems and patterns - until it is interrupted by something so radical and irrational as grace.
To be clear, forgiveness is not a denial of wrong. It is not quick and easy - it might take a lifetime to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. Forgiveness is not a shortcut or automatic reconciliation or healing. Forgiveness can’t be expected to play out on a convenient timeline or in a particular way.
When the families of the victims killed in the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, now five years ago, spoke at Dylann Roof’s trial, many of them pronounced words of forgiveness over the man who murdered their loved ones. It was a powerful moment … shocking, really. They would have had every reason not to forgive, and yet, against every instinct, they do. Forgiveness...can you imagine?
Powerful and surprising as such forgiveness is, it doesn’t erase the harm that was done. It doesn’t ignore the racism and white supremacy that fueled Roof’s actions. It doesn’t impose precedent or expectation on those who continue to be harmed by racial violence to forgive at the drop of a hat.
Forgiveness doesn’t overlook harm and injustice, but it offers us a future so drastically different from what we know. A future where, unbound from what holds us down, we are freed for the work of justice and transformation and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a starting place for this work.
Debie Thomas writes that “forgiveness is choosing to foreground love instead of resentment.” Not a kind of love that overlooks harm and conflict, but God’s love that seeks restoration and wholeness.
The kind of forgiveness Jesus calls us to invites us to recognize God in the midst of the brokenness and the mess. Left to our own human brokenness, any kind of reconciliation seems futile. Forgiveness is choosing to tap into God’s abundant grace, trusting in God’s ability to hold all the broken pieces and, in time, to heal them and put them back together.
“Because God is in the story,” Debie Thomas writes, “we can rest assured that our wounds will not end in loss, trauma, brokenness, and defeat. There will be another turn, another chapter, another path, another grace. Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s abundance.”
We are a forgiven people - unconditionally and irrationally loved by God - called to embody a forgiveness that makes way for God’s grace to flow in and through us, to heal this weary world. That is the promise that flows in the waters of baptism. That is the promise offered around this table - poured out in the cup of a new covenant, a new way of life, for all people.
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?