The word forgive comes from a Greek word with a rich constellation of meanings that extend to financial, relational, and physiological matters. It can mean to remit, to give up a debt, to keep no longer. We can translate it as leave behind, let go, forsake, even divorce. One of the most powerful uses of the word is in Matthew 27.50. It is what Jesus does with his spirit; he gives it up, releases it. Forgiveness is a powerful idea that speaks of loosing our hold on something or someone, to renounce our claim to it. So it was a matter of real fascination for me to learn that of all weeks in the lectionary year, this week of September 11, our Gospel reading is Matthew 18:21-35.
In this passage Jesus tells a story that describes a servant who owes his king a staggering sum of money that he cannot pay. The king threatens to sell him, his family, and all his possessions. Pleading with the king, the servant receives extravagant mercy but fritters it away when he refuses to forgive a small debt that a fellow servant owes him. When the king hears of it, he hands him over to be tortured until he pays his debt in full. Forgiveness is such a radical and challenging practice that, as is his way, Jesus has to tell a story to try to explain it.
That to forgive involves a releasing, a letting go, makes it countercultural. This kind of act goes against the grain of a society where one of the primary ways we gain power is by accruing debts owed to us, obligations not just of money but also of time, favors, and other things that we think are owed us. My life has been interestingly influenced by proximity to Lyndon B. Johnson. I can think of no example of one who manipulated the system of policitical debts than he. That is what made him such a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate.
We tend to think of forgiveness strictly in personal terms. Jesus never claims that forgiveness compels us to accept the behavior of one who has caused us harm. He never tells us that forgiveness means saying that everything is okay or that we should remainin a relationship with someone who persists in wounding us. In challenging us to forgive, he acknowledges that we may not be able to change the behavior of another, or to alter what they have done, but that we have power over how we will respond. In that way, to offer forgiveness means that we refuse to allow another’s sin to control us, to hold us, to bind us. But to understand the tremendous costs involved in forgiveness, we might want to consider a couple of examples of macro forgiveness – of letting go of what we think belongs to us.
In one of the late chapters in Gary Wills’ fascinating book Head and Heart, a look at how religion developed in America, the author reports on emancipation’s economic impact on the south. According to the calculations of David Brion Davis, the market value of slaves exceeded $3.5 Billion in 1860 dollars. That would exceed $70 Billion in today’s dollars and even more revealing is that as a share of today’s gross national product the economic value would come to an estimated $9.75 trillion dollars. Maybe a bit easier to understand is that as investment capital the nation’s slaves in 1860 far exceeded the cash value of all the farms in the South, including the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. Even if it were not for the enormous costs related to the war, emancipation crippled the South and it would remain backward and impoverished for almost a century.
Maybe that helps us to better understand the reluctance of Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Pharaoh had responded to Moses request to go three days into the desert to sacrifice to their gods saying “Now they (meaning the Jews) are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” There is a lot not to like in this ancient story of emancipation; the slaughter of kids and lambs, the display of the animal’s blood on the door posts, the robbing of the Egyptian neighbors, the death of first born sons in unprotected homes, right down to the drowning of the Egyptian army. Again, we can understand the devastation visited upon Egypt through comparison with the devastation that rained on the South. One northern preacher, crowing about the great victories, said: “If God wills that it (the war) continue until all the wealth piled by the Bondman’s tow hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”. Would the calculations of loss be the same?
When the Egyptian army pursued the Israelites there was no misunderstanding the consequences of failure.
In another story about forgiveness, we read of Joseph, then a major player in Egypt, taking the embalmed body of his father, in an enormous procession of Egyptian servants, defenders and family back to the homeland for a burial. It took weeks. The story says that even before they left on the trip the mourning of the Egyptians with Joseph in the death of his father was lengthy and intense. The point is that death was a big thing to the Egyptians. In the made for TV movie, Broken Trail, I think it was, when the friend and companion of the herders was senselessly shot down, before they rode off to equal the score, they paused to bury him. The Israelites made their departure as the Egyptians were mourning those of their families who did not survive the Passover.
Listen to the text: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” We hear all the time of people who stay in abusive relationships, people who continue in employment that literally makes them ill, people who resolutely maintain their political loyalties against their own best interests and even when they have been disappointed and used repeatedly. “Better the devil I know that the devil I don’t know!” seems to be their stock excuse. “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” I couldn’t help thinking of the song that went something like: Please Mister Custer, I don’t wanna go. Hey Mr. Custer, Please don’t make me go. I had a dream last night about the coming fight.., There’s a red skin waiting out there, fixin to take my hair… Disunity isn’t anywhere near as bad as the unity that becomes concrete on a community’s feet, that keeps them from making important changes in direction. Pharaoh was being forced to forgive and the children of Israel weren’t a bit sure they wanted to leave. It goes back to the question the Hebrew version of scripture raises when Moses, in his call, asks God how he was going to get them to leave the only home they ever knew, adequate food, shelter, and employment.
But back to the text: “So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. … 21The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
This is pretty interesting stuff for people who major on the idea of the Spirit’s presence with God’s people. Constantly, day and night, God’s spirit led them as they made great haste to get beyond Egypt’s boundaries. Of course God was right – even though they were liberated their fear of freedom left them arguing among themselves and with Moses. Even though emancipated and in the visible company of God’s spirit they groused. Listen to this language: “They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
You’ve all watched at least one of the many movie versions of the Alamo? Growing up in Texas I think I had Texas history in the third, seventh and tenth grades. In seventh grade I had to recite the names of every county in Texas and connect the name of the county with the role of the person in the grand saga of the Republic’s independence from Mexico. Well, the Alamo story generally winds up just before Buffalo Bayou spills into Galveston Bay, a place called San Jacinto. It was to there that Sam Houston led his quarrelsome, and inadequately provisioned rag tag troop of Texicans who were being closely pursued by the Napoleon of the West, General Santa Anna and his army. General Sam off all means of escape for the Texans, literally burning bridges. Santa Anna, believing his prey were trapped – which in fact they were, he decided to wait until his long lines of support caught up with the forward movement before he attacked. With the rising sun to their backs the Texans launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Mexican troops – and captured the General and in so doing won Texas’ independence. Why I bring that up is that it is that the Texans were in the same kind of place as were the Israelites with the army of Egypt coming down on them. This is what happened.
Back to the text: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.”
God’s angel, or God’s presence, if you please, visible as the pillar of cloud and the fire, stopped leading them and started protecting them. With their enemy in sight God came and stood between them and either utter destruction or continued servitude. Is there a lesson in that for us?
Moses said to them: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Isn’t it strange how hard a lesson that one is to learn. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” The Lord heard their groans and made a way of escape. And he hears our prayers and knows the burdens of our lives. He choose an unlikely champion to lead them out of slavery. And for us he provides this own Spirit to guide our lives. In the face of their fears and against their wishes he forced change upon them. And change comes upon us, it is what life, growth and maturity are all about. He emancipated them and even in their freedom they wanted to return to their slavery. And for us, isn’t it the same? That we have the equivalent of buyers regret when we are reluctant to live into the fullness he offers. Then with an enormous threat hanging over them, God acted to protect them. And do you understand that that same God, always willing to go before to lead you is also takes up the duty of rear guard to keep you safe. And finally, God acted to set them free to start anew, just like us, and what was required of them, only to ‘keep still’! Will we ever learn to trust God?