“Double-Sided Tape” (Worship 9/11/11)

Double-Sided Tape

Matthew 18: 21-35


Christian pilgrim and writer Anne Lamott has a great way of putting things.  She is direct, frank, and unflinchingly honest.  On forgiveness, or the lack thereof, she writes:  “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die” (www.fetzer.org, from “Campaign for Love and Forgiveness” materials).


In other words, not forgiving is like stewing in your hatred, steadfastly unmerciful, hardened of heart, all the while waiting for what you hate or can’t forgive to die.  In the meantime, your hatred is the very thing that poisons and kills you.


We have some bad habits when it comes to forgiveness.  Like rat poison.  Like how we are overly fond of the phrase “forgive and forget,” which is not biblical or particularly helpful.  Like praying the Lord’s Prayer without realizing it requires something of us, too.  Like thinking that Jesus is always on our side, no matter where we stand.


Peter asks Jesus the question that prompts the parable.  He asks, So what’s the cut off, Jesus?  How many times do I have to forgive someone before my obligation is fulfilled? (Mt. 18: 21).  From the moment of his question, Peter assumes that he will be the one in the position of offering forgiveness to another (Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas, p. 166).  Isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t ask it the other way around?  He could have asked:  Jesus, how many times can I be forgiven?  What’s the limit before I’m out of do-overs? But he thinks he knows where he stands and he’s pretty sure it’s right next to Jesus, ready to dole out forgiveness to all those offenders – but only for the requisite number of times.


But Jesus doesn’t buy into the question.  He answers with a number and a parable.  He says, You need to forgive a bazillion times and here’s what the kingdom of heaven is like, by the way (v. 22-23).  He says that the kingdom of heaven is like a rich man who forgives his slave for an extravagant and unpayable debt.  And then the slave refuses to forgive his fellow slave for a smaller debt.  When the rich man hears about it he says, “You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  Then he hands the slave over to be tortured until he can pay up on the debt he originally owed the master.  (Mt. 18: 23-34)


Now, biblical scholars have some disagreements about exactly where this parable ends.  Many think that the original parable told by Jesus ends with the question in verse 33:  “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  Some think it stopped at the next verse with the master handing the slave over to torture.  But they all seem to agree that the final verse, 35, is an addition to the original material, added by Matthew to allegorize the parable and make the larger theological points of the gospel he was writing (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.VIII, p. 382).


Whatever the case, it seems clear that the literary and dramatic weight of the parable falls on the question in verse 33:  “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”


Clearly, rhetorical.  Obviously, “Yes!”  Mercy ought to beget mercy.  Forgiveness should breed more forgiveness.  But right on the heels of his own miraculous, humongous forgiveness, the wicked slave turns on his heel and ingests rat poison.  Rather than emulating the kindness and generosity of the one who forgave him, he models himself on the business-as-usual ways of the world.  He might have said to himself, Better store up my treasure now, while the gettin’s good or the next time I’m in debt I won’t be so lucky!  That stupid slave owes me and that’s my ticket!

A question like Peter’s can lead to thinking like that.  I need to know how many times to forgive, so I know exactly when I’m allowed to sock it to him. Jesus’ answer:  Never.  Jesus’ answer:  Shouldn’t you have mercy on each other, as I’ve had mercy on you?


It’s not the first time he’s tried to teach the disciples this lesson.      Back in chapter six he taught them the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6: 9-13), with its two daily pleas.  We are to pray every day for that day’s bread and to forgive and be forgiven.  Jesus must have known how hard it would be, since he gave it as a perpetual daily assignment.


Any day – every day – is a day for forgiveness.  Today is a good day for forgiveness.  Not because it’s the 10th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th 2001, but because Jesus told us this is our daily prayer and work to do.  It just so happens that today gives us ample material with which to work.


Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is like double-sided tape.  It “sticks” simultaneously in both directions.  We forgive as we have been forgiven.  We extend the forgiveness we know in our own lives to others.  We don’t “deserve” it and neither do they.  The act of forgiving frees us as much as it frees the one forgiven.  Give us this day our daily bread…forgive us as we forgive. The wicked servant thought he could get by on regular one-way Scotch tape style forgiveness.  But Jesus tells us it doesn’t work that way.


We’ve had a lot of business-as-usual these past 10 years.  From the moment of the attacks in Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York, we’ve heard cries for war and to rebuild.  But what about forgiveness?   There may be agreed upon instances of just war but they don’t negate our instructions from Christ to forgive our enemies and their unpayable debts.  Justice and forgiveness are not incompatible.  Rebuilding can be a way to move forward, but rebuilding over a gaping hole of hatred only creates a creaky monument.  The public discourse in our country has not centered on forgiveness and, if the street parties last May when Osama Bin Laden was killed are any indication, we haven’t been quietly working on it either.


I don’t know exactly what it looks like to forgive the attackers but I don’t think it looks like a street party when one of them dies.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean it was ok or that we allow it to happen again.  It doesn’t mean we have warm fuzzy feelings for the perpetrators.  But it does mean that we are called to do the hard, extravagantly grace-filled work of trying to see them as God does – of trying to see them as children of God.  It means that as each anniversary of that terrible day rolls around, if we find ourselves unbudged, right back where we were in 2001, we are behaving like the wicked slave.  The day, the images, the losses, the anniversaries are not permission to behave badly.  If we are doing our daily work they will be markers of how far we have come.  We might have to measure this in centimeters.  We might have to measure this by what we have not done – No rat poison ingested this year! Jesus does not say how long it takes to forgive.  He simply gives it to us as our work and our daily prayer.


I read a great article in last week’s Washington Post, by a TV critic reviewing all the 9/11 specials flooding our screens right now.  He concluded his review by saying, “It’s still too soon, too close, to make the best TV about Sept. 11.  It will be up to another generation of producers and documentarians…to sift through the piled gigabytes of what remains of our footage, interviews and images and from that create works of permanent meaning and beauty” (Hank Stuever, “A deluge of looking back, whether we’re ready or not.” The Washington Post, 8/28/11).  Similarly, it may still be too soon for the deepest forgiveness.  But that’s what the day calls for.


It might take another 10 years for some but we have the opportunity and the mandate for this every day.  Bread and forgiveness – that’s what we are called to live on and to live by.  Throw out the rat poison!  Stock up on double-sided tape.  Give thanks to God for the gracious forgiven life you have been given, then turn on your heel and offer it to your neighbors, even the ones you call “enemies.”  That’s what it looks like in the kingdom of heaven, our native land.

Thanks be to God!


© Deborah E. Lewis 2011