by Daniel Harrell
Years ago I got a call from a church member who had delayed the sale of a house he owned in another state for more than two years so he wouldn’t have to evict two tenants, both Christians. The tenants put off paying rent, offering one excuse after another, month after month, until they’d run up a back-rent of more than $30,000. This owner, still willing to help, refinanced his mortgage to lessen his tenants’ financial burden. Eventually, however, unable to sustain two mortgages on his own, he ended up having to sell the house and evict the tenants anyway. He called me because he wasn’t sure what to do about the $30,000 in back rent. It was causing him enormous stress.
Being the good minister I am, I suggested forgiving the debt, since that’s what Jesus would do, and waited to hear the chuckle of common sense from the other end of the phone. We appreciate Jesus and all, but let’s be realistic. Forgiving a debt as enormous as this would be irresponsible, not to mention unjust and even scandalous. How would these delinquent tenants ever learn their lesson? But then what I heard from the other end of the phone was a sigh of relief. The owner sheepishly asked, “Would forgiveness be OK?”
More recently I lunched with a fellow minister whose church budget has suffered a hit at the grubby hands of an embezzling staff member. The staffer managed ten years of deceit totaling over $100,000. He’d hidden his crime behind his gifted and beloved ministry to the church. He’d brought so many people to Christ no one could believe he was also a crook. The church board doesn’t know what to do. Forgiving so enormous a debt would be irresponsible, not to mention unjust and even scandalous. Would Jesus just let it go?
He might, ironically, had the offense occurred outside the confines of the church. Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners, no questions asked. He prayed grace on those who sought to destroy him even as he hung on the cross. Inside the lines, however, grace gets a little more complicated. Having redeemed sinners into Christian community by way of the cross, God raised expectations. The resurrection turned God’s people into the body of Christ on earth with Jesus himself as our head and the Holy Spirit our breath. We’re all in this together now with the integrity of the whole community at stake. “Each of you is part of one body,” the apostle Paul insisted. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the eye to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”
But what do you do when a eye pokes itself out to spite its face? In the previous passage, from two Sundays back, Jesus presented a four-step protocol for dealing with offenses in church. Step 1: Confront the bad eye in private, and if he listens, vision restored. If he refuses, Step 2: take one or two others and apply pressure. If the bad eye still refuses to see, proceed to Step 3 and expose him to the whole church. After that, if there is no change, move on to Step 4: “let the offender be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” “If your eye causes you to sin,” Jesus said, “gouge it out. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two and be thrown into the hell of fire.”
Surely Jesus exaggerates. Nobody was really expected to gouge out their eye or cut off their hand any more than millstones were to be tied around sinners’ necks and tossed into the sea. This was hyperbole. Likewise with Gentiles and tax collectors. Jesus loved those guys. Let it slide.
Was Jesus exaggerating? When it finally came time to put Jesus’ protocol to the test, the Corinthian church couldn’t do it. A church member was brazenly shacking up with his stepmother—a kind of immorality not even found among pagans, we’re told—but the church did nothing about it. “And you are proud!” rebuked a shocked apostle Paul. They were proud of their presumed liberality and ease with social norms. What’s grace if not sufficiently amazing to cover any sin? Choosing to take Jesus as word instead, Paul commanded the Corinthians to throw the man out of the church and “hand him over to Satan, that his flesh may be destroyed but his spirit saved in the day of the Lord.” “Better to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
Hyperbole or not, this is very harsh language, and prone to misuse. Churches have pulled out these words to justify every kind of excommunication. But Jesus’ final purpose was never alienation. The kingdom of God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one who went astray. The gospel’s goal is reconciliation: getting a black sheep back into the flock, even if it means making some mutton to do it.
And yet reconciliation is a two-way street. The prodigal son still had to turn around and come home. Repentance is needed for real reconciliation to happen. This is helpful. It generally is easier to forgive when offenders repent. Easier still, presumably, when offenders are our brothers or sisters in Christ. There’s motivation to reconcile then. But what about sin too big to forgive? Say 30 or 100 thousand dollars worth? What if too much damage has been done? Or what if the offender gets forgiven but then just goes out and does it again? Say eight or nine times or more? Leave it to Peter to ask what everybody is thinking. “How much do I have to put up with this?” Social convention taught three pardons to be sufficient—three strikes and you’re out. Peter ups the ante to seven—showing at least a little awareness of Jesus’ lack of respect for convention. But Jesus totally blows away convention by countering with seventy-seven—or as other versions put it, seventy times seven—a number which in either case might just as well have been seven million. Reconciliation is more than a two-way street. It is a permanently open road to the offender kept clear by a willingness to forgive on the part of the offended whatever the offense. If Jesus forgave while hanging on a cross then so must the body of Christ.
To illustrate, Jesus rolls out one of his more annoying analogies. He compares the kingdom of heaven—or if you prefer, the body of Christ—to a king who discovers one of his servants embezzled to the tune of ten thousand talents—an amount combining the largest known number in Greek with the largest unit of local currency. Even one talent was a small fortune; ten thousand was beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary people. No way the crook repays the money, so the king rightfully decides to sell off his servant—him and his family and all his possessions—to at least recoup some of the loss and exact a little justice. Hearing the verdict, the slave collapses before the king and pleads for mercy, promising to somehow pay every cent back. Though the king knows full well this promise can’t be kept, he’s moved to mercy. He pities the slave and irresponsibly, some might say scandalously, wipes his entire account clean.
It’s a little like Cinderella treated her sinister stepmother once the storied glass slipper found the right foot. I bring up Cinderella because I saw the new Disney rendition last weekend. I’d like to say I saw it for the sake of my seven-year-old daughter, but it probably had more to do with Downton Abbey withdrawal. Lily James, Lady Rose at the Abbey, plays the lead with Daisy the cook as one of the stepsisters. Everyone talks British in the movie, of course, and the scenery, costuming and score are magnificently gorgeous. I cried through the whole thing. It’s a reliable tale and faithful re-creation of the 1950 animated film, complete with a pumpkin coach and fairy godmother. There’s no touch of irony nor need for a spoiler alert. You know how it goes: a good-hearted young girl suffers unbearable loss only to further suffer under the excoriating hand of her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into servitude, her fairy godmother makes way for salvation with an ending as everlastingly hopeful as the gospel itself. It’s enough to make any grown man cry.
Cinderella leaves the house with Prince Charming in tow, her horrified nemesis looking on, deviously and deliciously played by Cate Blanchett. Vanity Fair movie critic Erika Jarvis calls this most recent incarnation of Cinderella “pathologically patient,” a powdered-sugar princess who’s useless as a modern-day heroine. Her “impossibly blissful childhood” grounds her to withstand vicious cruelty, a cascade of injustices she confronts with simplistic goodness, armed only with her late mother’s mantra—“Have courage and be kind.” A folklore professor named David Pace once described Cinderella as “an adult myth” promoting “an innate justice” woven into the universe whereby all “wrongs will eventually be righted.” A judgment day if you will. Armed with this hope, arm and arm with her prince, Cinderella stops and turns on her way out the door, spies her stepmother and with quiet compassion says, “I forgive you.” Fairy tale indeed.
Much better, perhaps, and certainly more satisfying, would have been to see Cinderella stomp over to stepmother and punch her in the gut. Ours is an age of heroines like Katniss and Hermione, Anna and Elsa; young women for whom courage and strength look like courage and strength. In a Chinese version of Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsister are stoned to death.
In Jesus’ actual analogy, the forgiven slave shamelessly exploits the king’s mercy. Once out the door into the sweet light of freedom, he finds a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii—a few measly bucks compared to ten thousand talents. Seizing his fellow slave by the throat, the forgiven embezzler demands immediate repayment. The fellow slave fell to his knees and begged for more time, but the forgiven slave opted to imprison his debtor until he could pay back every dime, doing unto another the exact opposite of what had been done unto him. The king hears about it and is rightfully furious. “‘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.” And then comes the kicker, a punch line that punches us in the gut: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Unfortunately every translation says the same thing. I checked.
The good news is you can count on God’s grace whenever you ask for it, no matter what. But if God’s grace fails to translate into your own mercy to others, then count your grace gone. Outraged by the forgiven slave’s refusal to go and do likewise, the king threw his ungrateful and unmerciful servant into jail to be tortured forever. If there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin, this is it. It’s enough to make us skip that line we routinely pray every Sunday: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Why even risk it?
Not only must we forgive each other, but we have to do it from the heart. What does this even mean? Luther Seminary Professor emeritus Gracia Grindal compares it to a tradition in Lutheran pietism, where “people used to dread the Lord’s Table when they knew they harbored sinful thoughts and resentments against their brothers and sisters. They did not feel repentant enough to dare drink to their own damnation. Something dangerous happened in communion, and they did not dare receive the cup without making amends with the neighbor. Martin Luther argued that one should not receive communion in an unfamiliar place because neither the community nor the pastor would know if there had been amendment of life. This is strange language to us. We have mainlined grace so cheaply that we no longer understand the disconnect in our own spiritual lives. As Bonhoeffer argued, we have begun to justify sins instead of sinners. We insist on a superficial forgiveness and judge people who are judgmental and unforgiving. Here is where Jesus gets us again. It needs to be from the heart.”
It’s not enough to go through the motions of grace. If you say you forgive someone, but retain in your heart a bill of particulars ready to be whipped out at the next infraction—this is not forgiveness from the heart. If you say you forgive a brother or sister, but never speak to them again, never invite them to dinner, never sit beside them in church, never fully embrace the friendship as it was but leave the forgiven thing as an unforgotten barrier between you—this is not forgiveness from the heart. Martin Luther went so far as to say an unwillingness to forgive means you’ve never been forgiven yourself. You’re not really a Christian. To the extent that we insist on our own goodness and rightness, we resist the change grace can make happen inside us. Seventy times seven is too much only if mercy has never made it to your own heart.
A forgiving heart of the kind Jesus demands was not a widely valued trait in ancient society. It’s not especially valued in ours. A Cinderella-savior like Jesus is useless as a modern-day hero. He quietly saves with humiliating grace, dispensing love unto death without so much as an avenging thunderbolt or a rapid volley of flaming fire from the cross, all for the purpose of reconciling stray sheep, and then rising from the dead so we can all live happily ever after together. The gospel reads like a fairy tale—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.