“Costly Truth, Costly Forgiveness” (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary on Matt 18 for Sept 4, 2011)

I. Anne Taylor’s Saint Maybe, part one

Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has made the important connection that we can learn a lot about the Christian practice of forgiveness from the character Ian Bedloe in Anne Taylor’s novel Saint Maybe.

As the story goes, one day a plate glass window attracts Ian’s attention as he walks down the street. The window reads, “The Church of the Second Chance.” He can hear a hymn being sung by inside. He almost keeps walking, but instead quietly enters the church, and slips into a back pew, hoping not to draw too much attention to himself. After the service is over, Pastor Emmett introduces himself to Ian. As they talk, all the emotions Ian has been holding inside the past few weeks flood to the surface. He begins confessing to Pastor Emmett.

Pastor Emmett: What’s wrong, Ian?

Ian: I don’t even know where to start. So much has happened so quickly. It started when I told my brother…I told my brother that his wife was cheating on him. And then later that night…he drove into a wall.  Then a few days later his wife overdosed on sleeping pills. So I guess you could say I helped cause that too…more or less… He’d had too much to drink that night. I guess I shouldn’t have told him. But I was really mad. I’d been babysitting for him and his wife. And she should have been home hours ago. She made me miss a really important date with my girlfriend — or at least it seemed important at the time…. Now I’m not even sure she was cheating on him…. I mean I’m pretty sure she did in the past…. I know I wasn’t totally wrong….  So it looks as if my parents are going to have to raise the children. My sister’s busy with her own kids and I’m away at college most of the time…. Everything’s been dumped on my mom and I don’t think she’s up to it — her or my dad, either one. I don’t think they’ll ever be the same after this…. So anyhow, I prayed to God for forgiveness.  And I honestly believe it might have worked….  Oh, it’s not like I got an answer in plain English, of course.  But…don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven? I mean, I thought God forgives everything. But I just don’t feel forgiven.

Pastor Emmett: Ian, you can’t just say, “I’m sorry, God.” Why anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation — concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of the church. Jesus helps us do what we can’t undo. But only after we’ve tried to undo it. You, for instance, could begin by raising the children.

Ian: Raising the children? But I’m only a freshman? I’m away at college most of the time.

Pastor Emmett: “Then maybe you should drop out.”

Ian: Drop out? Drop out of college? …This is some kind of test, isn’t it?

Pastor Emmett: Ian, it’s not that simple. But God does want to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done…. How else would God know?

Ian: Wait. You’re saying God would want me to change all my plans and give up my education?”  …That’s crazy! I’d have to be crazy! I can’t take on a bunch of kids!  Who do you think I am?  I’m nineteen years old! What kind of religion is this?

Pastor Emmett: It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness…. It’s the religion of the Second Chance.

II. A Forgiven Community

The scripture today is from Matthew 18, which is a manual for how Christians should live together in community.

Step One (verse 15)

Verse 15 covers the first step: “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.” Jesus urges us to confront the problem directly. Tell the truth that you feel hurt. Seek forgiveness. Determine what needs to be done to restore the broken relationship.

The catch is that “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Sometimes we want to begin by spreading the story of how we have been harmed. We want to gossip. If we go directly to the person who has sinned against us, he or she might listen to us. If the person listens to us, then we have to restore our relationship. We don’t want that.  We’ve been hurt! We want to hurt back! So, we avoid our enemy — just like Jonah avoided Nineveh. Jonah knew that God is “merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to forgive.” Jonah feared God’s grace because he wanted the Ninevites to be punished.

Our motivation should be to maintain relationship, but our temptation is to get revenge. We want “an eye for an eye.” But as Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Jesus offers a better way. Start with confronting the person directly, tell the truth. Confess that you feel hurt, work towards reconciliation. This is what it means to love your enemies and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Step Two (verse 16)

Step two in verse 16 says, “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 confronting the person individually doesn’t work, Jesus instructs us to ask a few others to help make a second attempt at holding the person accountable.

The need to offer forgiveness repeatedly is a theme that runs deep in Christian history. Leviticus 19:17-18 says, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the New Testament, “John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1 and parallels). In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul says, “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another….” Christianity has a history of truth-telling and forgiveness. God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another.  Christians around the world prayer this daily as part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” (Matthew 6:12).

Step Three (verse 17)

Step three in verse 17 says, “If the member refuses to listen even to the church as a whole, then, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Following Matthew 18, an individual, a small group, and finally the church as a whole have all warned the offender. Three strikes and you’re out, right?  You’ve repeatedly held them accountable.  You’ve spoken the truth in love. You’ve sought forgiveness. You want to restore the broken relationship, not get revenge. But none of it’s working…. So Jesus says, “Let that one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”

“Let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Ephesians 4 says, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.  That is not the way you learned Christ! …Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” In other words, “Gentiles and tax collectors” are examples of those who do not act like part of the forgiven community.

The hard part is that those who no longer act like part of the forgiven community must still always be invited back in. In Luke 17, Jesus says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The forgiven community must forgive since we are forgiven first by God. Our temptation can be to exclude, but Jesus set the example for us in the Upper Room. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he did not break table fellowship. The invitation remained for Judas to rejoin the community of forgiveness.

The womanist scholar Carolyn Gordan reminds us that we are usually not so quick to extend an invitation of forgiveness as Jesus was to Judas. If we were in Jesus’ place and we were betrayed and crucified, we probably wouldn’t be so quick to pray: “[God, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Instead, we might find ourselves thinking, “I can’t believe they crucified me — after all I did for them. Well, they can forget about the resurrection. They’re on their own.”

Zaccheus is another example. He was one of the worst abusers of all the tax collectors, but Jesus went with him to his house to eat (Luke 19:1-10). Zaccheus proclaimed, “Half of my possessions, I will give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Judas and Zaccheus show that the community of forgiveness must always be open.  Christians are to forgive not seven, but seventy-times-seven times — essentially meaning an infinite number of times. Zaccheus, in particular, shows that the burden of forgiveness is not just on Christians who must repeatedly extend an offer of invitation. There are consequences to being forgiven as well. Zaccheus does more than say “I’m sorry.”  He radically changes his daily life. He begins by offering reparation, what Anne Tyler calls, “concrete…practical reparations.”

III. Anne Taylor’s Saint Maybe, part two

Narrator:  Ian’s parents were skeptical of the plans that he worked through with Reverend Emmett. They were not reassured when he said that the Church of the Second Chance was going to help him raise his brother’s children. His father asked him.

Dad: Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some sect?”

Ian: No, dad, I just found a church that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Downtown makes sense to you and Mom.

Dad: But, Son, Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our education.

Ian: Well maybe it should have. Look, I’m not doing this to you! It’s something I have to do for myself…to be forgiven.

Dad:  Forgiven? Forgiven for what? You’re a fine, considerate, upstanding young man.  What sin could you possibly be guilty of that would require you to uproot your whole life?”

Ian: Dad, Mom, I don’t know how to tell you this.  But I’m part of the reason that Danny died. I told him that Lucy was…um, not faithful. Afterward, I think he drove into that wall on purpose.

Narrator: Ian had thought there would be questions. He had assumed they would ask for details. But they just sat silent, starring at him. After a while Ian rose awkwardly and left the table. Reverend Emmett had said he would have to tell them the truth…but had Reverend Emmett taken into account the lonely thud of his sneakers on the steps — the shattered, splintered air he left behind?”

To support his new family, Ian becomes a cabinetmaker. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that this career choice is no coincidence. Truth-telling and forgiveness — just like cabinetmaking — are practices that must be learned slowly and over time.

It is only in turning his back on his former life that Ian faces the true consequences of his actions. It is only in this new life that Ian can truly become a new creation.  It is only through those long, twenty years of parenting his brother’s children that Ian begins to understand the true cost and the true blessing of living in the forgiven community.

Prayer

(Adapted from Stanley Hauerwas, “I Do Not Want My Enemies Forgiven”
in Prayers Plainly Spoken, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 95.)

Let us Pray.

God of Truth and Forgiveness,

Each week we mouth the words, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

But we confess that we do not always want to forgive our enemies.

As the psalmist says, sometimes we want to kill them.

Sometimes we would prefer to pray that you punish our enemies, since we would like to watch them suffer.

Help us to practice forgiving those who sin against us, lest our hates become more precious than our loves.

Thank you that you have bent us toward reconciliation that we may pass one another Christ’s peace.

It’s a terrible thing to ask of us.

I am not sure I can do it, but you are a wily God able to do miracles.

May we be struck alive with the miracle of your grace,

Even to be reconciled with ourselves.

A-men.

Notes

1 “Costly Truth, Costly Forgiveness” — my title is an allusion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conception of “Costly Grace” in his book The Cost of Discipleship.

2 Anne Taylor Saint Maybe (Alfred A, Knopf, Inc.: New York, 1991), 41ff, 115ff. The excerpts are principally from the end of chapters 3 and 4. I have also altered the excerpts into oral/dramatic language. For Hauerwas’ specific take on Taylor’s novel and Christian forgiveness, see his essay “Why Truthfulness Requires Forgiveness: A Commencement Address for Graduates of a College of the Church of the Second Chance” (1992). Also see Hauerwas’ essay “Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church” (1985). Both essay may be found in The Hauerwas Reader, eds. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 2001), 307-326.

3 “A Forgiven Community” see Chapter 31, “The Saints,” in Dietrich Bonheoffer, The Cost Of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937/1995), 287-293, especially 288.

4 “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive” — see also my sermon: “Teach Us to Forgive.”

5 Matthew 10:5 is problematic for this approach (“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans’”) although it may be Jesus considering other incidents such as the Syro-Phonecian woman.  In general, it is unclear how much of Matthew 18 is the “actual words” of Jesus.  The whole discussion of “church” in general seems anachronistic for 30 CE Jesus and much more a later concern of the 70 CE Matthean community.  Matthew 18 is one of the only places the word church even occurs in the NT.  The challenging command to “forgive not seven but seventy-times-seven,” however, seems likely to be Jesus’ words.

6 “If the same person sins against you seven times a day.” — There is a parallel admonition directly following the Matthew 18 scripture for today.

7 “The career choice of cabinetmaker is no coincidence” — Hauerwas, 311-312.

(The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.)

About Carl Gregg
  • http://preacherontheplaza.wordpress.com Elizabeth Hagan

    Thanks for this, Carl. Glad to find your blog.


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