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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Jesus uses this language in the gospel of Luke:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Here the work of the Spirit is to announce good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, set the oppressed free, and announce the year of the Most High’s favor, the year when all debts would be forgiven, regardless of creditors’ wishes. In that year, debtors were released!
Those who are forgiven in the Jesus story are those on the margins, those pushed to the underside and edges of Jesus’ society by those benefiting from the status quo. What about those whose social location was more at the center or upper class? Did Jesus extend forgiveness to them, too?
Remember the story of Zacchaeus? (see Luke 19:1-9) Jesus forgave and loosed him, too. Yet Zacchaeus was not loosed or forgiven from the consequences from his actions. Jesus instead called him to stop participating in oppression. Only then did salvation come to Zacchaeus’ house, because salvation looks like justice for the oppressed. This reminds me of Gandhi critiquing Christianity: he said he didn’t want to be saved from the consequences of his actions but from those actions themselves.
How many times have we seen those who harm others or benefit from that harm being forgiven or assured of no condemnation without being called to make restitution or reparations?
Being loosed is not conditional on acts of restoration like a quid pro quo, tit for tat, or an exchange. Rather, for oppressors, being loosed actually is these acts of restoring that which has been taken from others.
This is why I believe the disciples were given authority not to forgive, too. Reserving “forgiveness” is a way to remind them that their freedom is intrinsically tied to their choice to stop participating in the harm being done to others. Anything less than that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.” During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer watched Christians giving assurance to the Nazis. Assuring oppressors that everything is okay while they continuing to do harm is akin to expecting victims or survivors to reconcile with those who have harmed them but done no work of restitution. Neither of these are life-giving interpretations of the forgiveness ethic in the Jesus stories.
These stories don’t help us recover so much of the historical Jesus as much as they establish the authority of his disciples. In this week’s reading, the focus is Thomas and the story about him serves a double purpose for the fledgling Jesus movement. We’ll talk about how this might apply to us today, next.
(Read part 3)