Forgiven and reconciled

Proper 19 (September 14, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Gen. 50:15-21; Ps. 103:8-13; Rom. 14:1-12; Matt. 18:21-35

This week we met with staff of a French NGO to discuss a water project in Baghdad. Many Iraqis don’t have access to clean water. On Sept. 10, the Iraqi Health Ministry and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that “Five people have died in a cholera outbreak that has hit Baghdad and the southern provinces since late August and at least 22 other cases have been confirmed.” Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus, outgoing commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, told BBC News that he would never use the word “victory” to describe the outcome of the war in Iraq.

We also met with Jean Zaru, a long-time friend and Quaker leader from Ramallah. Jean recently published a book, Occupied with Nonviolence, that powerfully tells the story of her commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of an unjust military occupation in Palestine.

In the coming week, we look forward to gathering for a 3-day retreat with MCC staff from four countries in the region.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about forgiveness.

In the Old Testament reading, when Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that Joseph will now seek revenge. They plead with Joseph to forgive them for the crimes they committed against him when he was young. Joseph tells them not to be afraid: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph finds the strength to forgive by remembering that God is sovereign and is even able to sculpt evil human intentions into beautiful works of art.

In Psalm 103, David writes that God forgives all our sins (v.3) and that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v.8). Indeed, David declares, “As far as the east is from the west so far God removes our transgressions from us” (v.11).

In the Epistle reading, Paul writes that each of us will be accountable to God (Rom. 14:12) and, therefore, it is not our place to pass judgment on our brothers or sisters who may have different ways of seeking to honor God (vv. 4, 10).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of a servant who is deeply in debt to his master (Matt. 18:23-25). When the master demands repayment, the servant pleads for mercy and time. Graciously, the master forgives the entire debt (vv. 26-27). In a stunning show of ingratitude, the servant goes out and demands immediate and full payment from a fellow servant who owes him only of fraction of the debt that he has just been forgiven. When the second servant is unable to pay, the first servant has him thrown into prison (vv. 28-30). The master is furious and has the first servant punished (vv. 31-34). Jesus ends the story with this sobering line: “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v.35).

In our first year in the Middle East, I’ve wondered many times about what forgiveness looks like in a part of the world where grievances go back for centuries and millennia. I’ve been reading Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll’s troubling story of the church’s 2,000-year mistreatment of the Jews.

Jean Zaru’s book, on the other hand, poignantly describes 60 years of Israeli dispossession, occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

How does one begin to sort out what it means to forgive and be reconciled? Do we forgive only when others acknowledge wrongdoing and seek forgiveness?

Perhaps there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Like Joseph with his brothers, forgiveness is relinquishing the “right” to get even or to retaliate. It is canceling a debt that is owed to us, as did the master in Jesus’ parable.

Our forgiveness of others is rooted in the fact that God has forgiven us and in the conviction that God is great enough to turn the harm that others intend against us into something that will be life-giving. Jean writes: “There is always a subtle pride in clinging to our hatreds, reminding ourselves that they are justified, imagining that no one else in human history has suffered as we. God’s forgiving love can burst like a flare – even in the midst of our grief and hatred – and free us to love” (p. 74).

Reconciliation, on the other hand cannot take place until there is an admission of wrongdoing by the offending party and a willingness to set things right. Reconciliation is built on a foundation of truth and justice. Reconciliation will happen only as Christians acknowledge and make amends for their centuries of mistreatment of Jews. Reconciliation will happen only as Israelis admit that they have dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and as they end their occupation of Palestinian lands and recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees. Reconciliation will happen only as Americans acknowledge their misadventure and destruction in Iraq and seek to set things right.

Forgiveness can be initiated by the offended party. Reconciliation must be initiated by the offending party. May God give us the grace and courage to do both.

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