Today’s lectionary selection from Matthew 18:21-35 has people forgiving—or not—the financial sins of others. Enter the case of an anonymous slave, let’s call him “Ralph,” who petitioned his master for forgiveness and who subsequently was forgiven. Ralph was then asked to forgive the debt of another slave like himself. Ralph refused to forgive the debt of the other slave and, when the master found out about it, Ralph was thrown into prison, constituting the spiritual equivalent of going to hell. Ouch! A lesson here is that if we want forgiveness then we had better offer forgiveness to others.
Is forgiveness as straight-forward as it first appears? The usual way that theologians parse the sin-sacrifice-forgiveness process invites discussion. In Matthew, forgiveness involves not animal sacrifice but Jesus’ death paying our sin debt. Central to Jesus’ innovative gospel is this idea of forgiveness, one requiring a supreme, final sacrifice, namely that of his death rather than of countless animals. Apparently, God had changed from the Old Testament practice of animal-based redemption through a ritual butchering of beasts. In other words, the New Testament revision presented by Jesus is that there is now a universal, faith-based access to salvation that doesn’t require either “Jewishness” or the killing of animals.
The sin-salvation-forgiveness equation is central and bears repeating. The claim is that all humans must ask for eternal salvation (forgiveness of sins) by having faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection. Forgiveness in this sense is conditional not upon the ethnicity or worthiness of the individual(s) asking for it but rather upon God’s goodness and the sincerity of those seeking forgiveness. We experience redemption when we ask for and receive this wonderful gift.
A second-order of forgiveness involves people forgiving one another for their sins. A potential complication involves cheap forgiveness, what some people cite as superficiality or a “fast-food” approach to forgiveness. We learn of people who provide one-sided forgiveness, which means that it wasn’t requested by the person being forgiven. Does this cheapen forgiveness? Does this rob the person who needs forgiveness of their responsibility to seek it? Some folks announce that they have forgiven such and such a person without the forgiven person knowing or caring about it. The forgiven person may even be dead. Does any of this rouse concern about a possible abuse of or weakening of forgiveness? There are no final answers, just food for thought.
Some folks argue that original sin (Adam and Eve eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden) didn’t really happen and that the creation myth of Genesis should not be used to condemn humanity. This is a lively, ongoing debate within Christianity that won’t be solved today. The larger issue is what to do in the here and now with people all around us who need to both forgive and be forgiven for their own sins.
Along with those in the ancient past, people today also experience the pervasive sins that people inflict on one another. Sin is real enough now, no matter where or when it originated (including a supposed primordial past). Controversies aside, do you want to feel good? Try the great sensation of being forgiven. God invites us to build spiritual strength through the struggle of asking for, receiving, and extending forgiveness. We admit that we are challenged by certain conditions of forgiveness. Like most of our struggles, we can still grow stronger through engagement with troubling uncertainties. Make today a time of redemption through forgiving and being forgiven.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey